What is long COVID and how can you manage employees who have been impacted by it? Employment lawyer and Freeths Senior Associate, Toby Pochron gives an overview of this syndrome and how to support employees.
Over a year on from the start of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be lasting impacts of COVID-19 on the wider population, particularly in the form of long COVID.
It is highly important for employers and managers to be aware of what to look out for in their workforce to be able to assess and cater to an employee’s needs. The starting point to making this happen is in developing an understanding of what long COVID is and how it will impact employees.
What is long COVID?
Long COVID has a few identifying factors, including:
Length of illness
Those who have suffered from COVID-19 can find themselves with symptoms which last well beyond the typical 2 to 4 weeks. Illness beyond 4 weeks is classed as long COVID. The length of illness beyond the 4 weeks will vary individual to individual, with some feeling better after 12 weeks but others finding that symptoms persist, causing long term problems.
As more information is being gathered on the severity of long COVID syndrome, the NHS have published a list of common long COVID symptoms to be aware of:
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain/tightness
- ‘Brain fog’ – memory/concentration problems
- Insomnia – trouble sleeping
- Heart palpitations
- Pins and needles
- Joint pain
- Common COVID symptoms – temperature/ cough/ headache/change to smell or taste/ sore throat
Unfortunately, the ongoing symptoms experienced may not be consistent day to day and the amount of support your employees may need will vary. As a result of this, it is advisable to take a flexible and case-by-case approach.
How many people are affected by long COVID?
The amount of people estimated by the Office for National Statistics to be currently experiencing self-reported long COVID symptoms in the UK is 962,000. This is 1.5% of the population. This shows how truly prevalent this illness is and how likely long COVID is to impact employers.
Supporting a return to the workplace
As long COVID is such a new illness, it is yet to be determined if it will be classed as a disability. With this in mind, employers may find it beneficial to take to the approach of trying to support employees with reasonable adjustments first and foremost, and not get bogged down in definitions.
It has been found that long COVID impacts older people, ethnic minorities, and women more severely than others. This means that employees who suffer from long COVID may also be protected from discrimination in the workplace under other protected characteristics.
After developing an understanding of long COVID, the next step for employers to take is to support employees in their goal to return to the workplace. The best way to accomplish this is to discuss potential adjustments with your employees to gauge what will help them, taking it case by case as each employee may be experiencing different symptoms.
Some potential steps suggested by ACAS to take to enable your employees to return to work are:
- Occupational health assessments
- Arrange reasonable adjustments (some examples are below). The Occupational Health report may also offer some adjustments specific to the individual
- Consider flexible working, perhaps in partnership with phased returns
- Ask employees how much information about their illness they want others to know
- Check with the employee if there are any further steps you can take to facilitate their return
Below are some examples of reasonable adjustments, monitor the effectiveness of the adjustments and check in with the employee regularly.
- Physical changes to the workplace
- Changes to working hours, in terms of timing and/or number of hours
- Amend workload to provide more time to finish work
- Allow for more breaks
- Change workload/tasks
- Provide clear channels of support
Managing employees with long COVID
Once employees have returned, if you feel that they are still unable to carry out their work effectively, check to see if there is anything further that you can do. This may include seeing if another role within the company may be suitable to them.
For effective management of employees suffering with long COVID, develop your management and HR teams so that they understand the illness and have training to properly help employees. Make sure employees suffering with long COVID know who to contact for support and review relevant policies.
How to treat sickness absences
Following the year that many employees have had, extra time off due to long COVID illness may also heighten their feelings of isolation. A way to care for the mental health of those off sick is to carry out non-mandatory welfare meetings, checking up on the employee and keeping them up to date.
The usual rules for sickness absences and sick pay should apply to when employees are off with long COVID. However, it may be advisable to review your absence management policies to reflect the impact of long COVID on employees, so as not to discriminate against them.
If you need further help with managing this, myhrtoolkit’s HR software system has a dedicated absence module to help make monitoring and managing sickness absence much easier for SMEs.
Learn more about our absence management module on our website.
Written by Toby Pochron
Toby Pochron is a Senior Associate in the Freeths LLP Employment Law department. He was a Partner in the Employment Law department of Ironmonger Curtis.