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Long Covid doesn’t get much press nowadays, but it’s still a significant health issues for many. Lucie Mitchell reports.
Long Covid is now thought to affect almost two million people in the UK. Some of the more common symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, breathing problems, joint pain, and mental health issues, so it’s no surprise that it’s adversely impacting people’s abilities to work and undertake daily activities.
What’s more, research points to the fact that those suffering from Long Covid are being let down by their employers. A joint report by the TUC and Long Covid Support earlier this year found that one in seven employees with Long Covid had lost their job for reasons relating to the condition; while 66% said they had experienced unfair treatment at work, including bullying or harassment.
“As certain symptoms may interfere with productivity, these individuals may also be threatened with disciplinary action from senior leaders who lack Long Covid knowledge,” comments Vicky Walker, director of people at Westfield Health. “This poor treatment can have a significant impact, as employees have reported losing their jobs because of Long Covid. These issues could create a workplace culture where employees are reluctant to discuss the impact of Long Covid and other illnesses with their managers.”
One of the more challenging issues is that Long Covid is still not fully understood, and symptoms can vary daily for each person, making it far more difficult to manage.
“Because Long Covid is still poorly understood, people affected can experience barriers when requesting reasonable adjustments that could make their working lives easier,” comments Ondine Sherwood, co-founder of Long Covid SOS. “The fluctuating nature of Long Covid means that employees can appear to cope with their work responsibilities for a period, but then go on to experience crashes or relapses, which may have been caused by work pressure or stresses.”
She continues: “Employers may not appreciate that mental fatigue, screen fatigue, sound and light sensitivity, and the impact of the condition on memory function and ability to take in information can mean that working, even from home, can be very challenging to manage – and because none of these are visible, it is hard for line managers and colleagues to understand.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which groups of people are more likely to be affected by Long Covid, as most of the statistics are based on self-reported symptoms rather than clinically diagnosed cases. However, official statistics do give an indication.
“According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK and the CDC in the US, prevalence rates of self-reported Long Covid were greatest in people aged 35 to 69 years old,” comments Walker. “Both the ONS and CDC found that women were more likely to report Long Covid symptoms compared to men. Those working in the social or health sector are also more likely to report Long Covid, as well as individuals with pre-existing, activity-limiting health conditions.”
However, Sherwood stresses that anyone can develop Long Covid. “There are many who don’t fall into any of those groups who are still struggling with symptoms months and years after a Covid-19 infection.”
Employees with Long Covid should be treated the same as any other employee with a long-term health condition. This means cultivating an open, supportive, and inclusive culture, where employees feel safe to talk about their condition without fear.
“Where necessary, employers should make adjustments to the workplace and put wellness action plans in place to focus on individual needs,” says Paul Kelly, head of the employment team at Blacks Solicitors. “This will ensure that employees suffering with Long Covid receive the support they need to thrive at work.”
Sherwood says employees should try to obtain a fit note from their GP, which will help employers understand how they can tailor hours and responsibilities to get the best out of employees with Long Covid. “Workplace occupational therapists can help guide the employer as to the best working conditions for those affected by Long Covid,” she adds.
“Flexible, shorter hours; extended phased returns which are informed by health and ability rather than fixed dates; working from home where feasible; and redeployment, if this is mutually agreeable, are all options which should be considered.”
From both a human and HR perspective, the employer must put enough accommodations in place for employees suffering from Long Covid, so they are at least able to improve their condition, suggests Sophie Bryan, founder and chief workplace culture consultant at Ordinarily Different.
“This might take the form of flexible working – shifting around the hours in which they work according to when it suits them best. This can give the employees time to rest if they’re having a particularly bad day in terms of their symptoms. As an employer, being receptive to these demands can go a long way for the employee.”
Employers must also be aware of the risks of not adequately supporting employees with Long Covid. Whilst Long Covid isn’t yet classed as a disability, there are calls for this to change.
“The general condition of Long Covid does not in itself meet the official definition of a disability as set out in the Equality Act 2010,” explains Kelly. “However, a person who suffers from Long Covid may be disabled if any of their individual symptoms meet the criteria as set out in the Equality Act. This is a very unsatisfactory position, which has led to the TUC calling on the government to review and update the Equality Act to designate Long Covid as a disability.”
The financial consequences of failing to support an employee with Long Covid could therefore be quite extensive, with indications that it may amount to a disability, adds Toby Pochron, employment law director at Freeths. “All employers will need to keep their eyes and ears open as this area of law develops, with new guidance on these issues likely to be around the corner.”