Not retiring: Long Covid and the impact on people’s working lives

Long Covid figures out this week show that for many Covid is an ongoing issue and one that employers need to have on their radar.

Older woman works at laptop with facemask on


One of the things that gets lost in reports of mounting economic inactivity due to health-related issues is the impact of Covid on health. There’s a lot of talk of the pandemic, of course, but little acknowledgement that Covid is, for many, not a short-term thing. Many who shielded during the pandemic are still worried about the impact while as many as two million people in England and Scotland are estimated to be suffering from Long Covid, according to the latest Office for National Statistics report.

The report is based on a survey that covers the period from November 2023 to March 2024. It finds Long Covid symptoms adversely affected the day-to-day activities of 1.5 million people, with 381,000 reporting that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot”.

Of those who self-reported Long Covid and provided a date, 87.3% had experienced symptoms at least 12 weeks previously, 71.1% one year previously, 51.3% at least two years previously and 30.6% at least three years previously. Those who are middle aged are most affected. A 2023 survey found the prevalence of long Covid was higher for those with pre-existing health conditions than those without them and increased with age and level of socioeconomic deprivation. It was slightly higher for women than men and the new ONS statistics back much of this up.

Long Covid stories

Long Covid covers a large range of symptoms of differing impact. My partner suffered from a prolonged lack of smell or taste, for instance. Others may be unable to move from the sofa. has spoken to several people who have been severely affected. They include Seema Charters, an NHS anaesthetist. She was off work from June to November 2020 with symptoms varying from exhaustion and dizziness to stomach bloating, insomnia and a constant burning sensation in her throat. On her first day back in theatre she was meant to do a half day observing others, but after an hour and a half she suddenly crashed. Her throat started to burn and she was exhausted. Just driving to work and talking to people had worn her out. “I came home and cried,” she says. “People thought I was having another Covid attack. I realised that my colleagues didn’t understand what was happening because no-one had really heard about Long Covid.” It took 12 weeks to get back to full-time hours and even then she did not feel like she was back to normal.

We are still in the early stages of understanding the long-term impact of Covid in all its forms while it has fallen off the news radar. With Covid not going away any time soon, the incidence of Long Covid is likely to rise. For employers that means adding it to the list of chronic conditions that may require adaptations to people’s working patterns. The Government has just published details of what it is doing to support those with musculoskeletal conditions to stay in or return to work. That kind of non-mandatory support is welcome and flies in the face of the punitive ‘sicknote culture’ approach. Most people want to work if they can, but they may need more flexibility – and understanding – to do so.

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