Since its emergence in the UK last year, COVID-19 has thrown up a myriad of challenges for everyday life, drastically changing the way we live, communicate and work. Amongst these challenges has been something called ‘long COVID’.
Long COVID is the term given to those infected by COVID who continue to experience a constellation of symptoms for months afterward.
Around 390,000 people in the UK are currently thought to have long COVID, suffering debilitating symptoms that are either inhibiting work effectiveness or are preventing a partial or full return to work.
While it is beginning to be more frequently reported in the media, why it affects some people over others, and the associated symptoms, is less widely understood.
The symptoms of long COVID
Unsurprisingly, there is still a lot to be learned about long COVID – however, long-term health implications from viral infections are not a new phenomenon. After the SARS outbreak of 2002, a study in Canada found some of those infected were still suffering fatigue, muscle weakness and sleep issues up to three years later, and had not been able to return to work for an average of 19-months post-initial infection!
The difficulty of long COVID is that it appears to affect individuals in different ways – both physically and mentally. Various symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Heart problems
- Joint and muscle pain
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Lack of concentration
- Memory loss
- Mental health issues
Long COVID challenges for employers
Whilst long COVID is now recognised as a medical condition, just how it will impact our healthcare systems is yet to be seen. Not unlike other chronic underlying health conditions, as well as proving very difficult to live with and manage as a sufferer, balancing long COVID and work will equally become challenging for employers.
So, how can an employer or manager best support an employee with long COVID? And how can you, as an individual find the right balance between recovery and reintegration into the workplace?
Take a personalised approach
Long COVID does not yet come with its own diagnostic code. All we really understand is that a one-size-fits-all blanket approach for support and care is unlikely to work. Long COVID needs to be approached on a case-by-case basis and employers should work with individuals to determine how it is affecting them, what support they need, and whether a partial or full return to work is possible.
One of the main challenges of long COVID is knowing how long the effects are likely to last. Cases have shown that symptoms seem to come and go. An employee may be fit to work one day, and then totally debilitated by their condition the next, with very little notice.
Although this can be frustrating and disruptive to business, as an employer, you could find yourself on the wrong side of an employment tribunal decision if you treat a long COVID sufferer less favourably because of their high levels of sickness absence, or because they are struggling to fulfil the requirements of their job role. This is because if their symptoms persist long-term, your employee could be classed as having a disability.
In the future, long COVID could potentially become similar to other chronic diseases – for example, ME, in that it won’t automatically be viewed as a disability but could be deemed as such if the symptoms have a significant long-term impact on an individual’s daily life. In this case, treating an employee unfairly could be classed as disability discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability. At the moment, however, there’s very little medical clarity about how long the physical effects of COVID-19 are likely to last.
Keep a strong line of communication
Arguably the most important thing to do is to communicate with your employee early on, with a meeting either in person or remotely via a video messaging platform as soon as they feel well enough to do so. Open the discussion and be sympathetic and understanding, encouraging them to be as honest as possible about their physical and mental state. It’s important to understand their circumstances and position in order to support them in the correct way.
They may need a helping hand in understanding things themselves. Journaling is a great way to make sense of and explore thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you could encourage your employee to take a look at our ‘dealing with work and serious illness’ Notebook Mentor journal to get their feelings on paper.
Wherever possible, you should try and offer an employee with long COVID the option to work from home – at least initially. Feeling settled in a more comfortable environment will help to keep stress levels down and allow them more flexibility within working hours. Post-infection fatigue means that simply the commute in and out of the office can prove too much.
It’s also a good idea to enforce a phased return to work. Too much too soon can be counterproductive.
Create a long COVID readjustment plan
In the early days of a phased return to work it’s important to create a readjustment plan that recognises the ebb and flow of managing long COVID. One way to do this is for a manager to work with their employee on identifying the support that might need for this period of readjustment – particularly support that may be inconsistent.
Does the individual need any physical support – for example, the opportunity to use pure oxygen when breathing feels laboured? Does this need to be located at home or near to their desk space? Will they need access to a room where they could lie down for half an hour and take a rest break in complete silence?
If joints are sore (particularly hands for keyboards or manual work), think about offering some ergonomic adjustments to their work tools and equipment. Making an honest, almost ‘worse case’ assessment of physical needs will help people feel less stigmatised when they need to ask for support (or worse still, try and soldier on with none).
One of the most significant impacts of suffering a less understood and potentially debilitating disease is not just the physical effects on the body, but the psychological ones. No doubt long COVID sufferers will be concerned about keeping their jobs. Perhaps they are worried about the amount of pressure or stress they can cope with, or maybe they are simply frightened by a reoccurrence of the virus among colleagues? Managers simply can’t tell people not to worry.
Consider support for long COVID in the area of psychological safety. Employers are already training managers to recognise early signs that people are struggling mentally and emotionally. Will an individual need counselling or some other mental health support? Does the individual need a ‘buddy’ at work – someone who can keep an eye on them, who’s not their line manager? Even knowing a work colleague has time to ‘listen’ is important.
Smart organisations are training interested and willing team members, managers and leaders in how to spot issues and concerns – effectively making them mental health and wellbeing first aiders.
Practically there may be other things to consider with employees suffering from long COVID. For example, will contractual hours need modifying? Will a permanent move to hybrid or home working be required? Will allowances need to be made for travelling to work outside of rush hour or changing the mode of transport? Will dietary requirements need to be considered by any food and drink facilities offered to employees? Will fitness tracking apps need to be modified to measure and monitor new outcomes?
There is a myriad of potential policy changes to consider, in addition to tweaks to systems, processes and other parts of the employer/employee eco-system.
Create a plan together
These notions may at first seem a scary prospect for any employer. Perhaps individuals can’t get past the idea of what things will cost or how they will be delivered.
The key is to remember that we have been here before. The workplace has changed beyond recognition in the last fifty years, and it will now evolve as our new normal takes form.
Together with your employee, create a readjustment plan. Expect to gradually build-up to an employee returning to normal task delivery and allotted hours. Not only will this be physically beneficial, but it gives your employee time to mentally adjust to returning to work.
Some people might feel disengaged and disconnected when returning to work after long-term illness – not to mention overwhelmed. Building activity up slowly is best for your employee, and also for business. You don’t want to fully reintegrate someone, to have to potentially pull them back out again days later if their recovery regresses. Neither do you want skill and talent gaps popping up all over your business, because people have decided to throw the towel in, or because you have decided to restructure or make them redundant. Invariably these answers are more complex and more costly in the long run, than making well-thought-through adjustments as you go.
The role of occupational health
Perhaps you could benefit from the help of an occupational health adviser. This is a health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, who specialises in workplace health issues and can advise you on how best to support an employee with a long-term condition, such as long COVID. They help you understand your responsibilities under employment and health and safety law and help you to make decisions about reasonable workplace adjustments, return to work, and the release of company benefits such as pensions.
Occupational health advisers can also help you undertake a health assessment on your employee’s health in order to make the best recommendations on the kind of adjustments that could be made to make their working environment, that work best for them. An occupational health assessment will evaluate respiratory illnesses, musculoskeletal issues and mental health/workplace stress. With a better understanding of their health, you can check-in with your employee regularly to see how they are getting on and offer any additional support.
The idea of employing an occupational health adviser, especially for a small business, might seem disproportionate to your need. Chances are, as long COVID reveals itself more fully, there will be options to work with advisers on contracts or for fixed amounts of time per week.
Just be human
When supporting employees with a long-term illness, it’s important to remain human, whilst keeping your business-head on to ensure that your organisation can run smoothly and not suffer from the effects of an absent or partially incapacitated team member. You can do this by reminding yourself that it could be you? How would you expect to be treated in the same circumstances?
COVID has changed the lives of so many people, and we’re all still working out how to adjust to the effects it has had on our lives and our workplaces. Don’t save up making those adjustments. Small changes now will reap benefits in the long-term.