How to support employees with long Covid

  • In July 2022, an employment tribunal ruled that an employee with long Covid was classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Employers may want to ensure that they prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of affected employees and not focus on getting them back to normal as quickly as possible.
  • Regularly checking in with employees can help to assess how long Covid is impacting their ability to work.

In July, an employment tribunal in Scotland found that an employee with long Covid-19 (Coronavirus) was in fact disabled under the Equality Act 2010. This landmark decision raises the question of what employers could be doing in terms of offering workplace support to employees with this condition and what is important to include.

Health and wellbeing support

The most common long Covid symptoms are extreme tiredness, muscle ache and respiratory concerns, while less common ones include memory problems, difficulty concentrating, poor sleep, dizziness, depression, anxiety and gastrointestinal issues. These can all be debilitating in the workplace and impact an employee’s ability to work and focus on tasks, resulting in challenges arising when navigating this.

In terms of offering health and wellbeing support to employees, there are several options for employers to consider. Providing adequate sick leave over the long-term, employee assistance programmes, access to face-to-face and remote GPs, and private medical insurance would all be of use.

An employer needs to ensure it treats each employee as an individual and considers their specific situation and symptoms. Occupational health and vocational health support services could also be invaluable.

Employers may also want to ensure that they prioritise affected employees’ mental health and wellbeing and not just focus on getting them back to normal as quickly as possible.

When training managers on mental health, employers should ensure the workplace is a safe space to talk openly about problems by providing employees with a platform where they can easily communicate with their managers. Dr Anne Lepetit, medical director at Cigna Europe, explains: “This can be done by offering guidance and training to employees to start a dialogue with their managers. Simple measures, such as training mangers on the warning signs of long Covid, can have a significant impact on the health of employees.”

Regularly checking in with employees can help to assess how long Covid is impacting their ability to work, says Rachel Murray, head of employee health and wellbeing at Bupa UK. “Directing employees to resources like Asthma and Lung UK’s Post-Covid Hub can help them get the latest information on the impact of the condition,” she adds.

Assistance through benefits

Organisations may also provide employee benefits to assist staff, for example, some insurers and providers offer specific long Covid support pathways. Other benefits that can help include group income protection, health cash plans and practical arrangements at work, such as flexible-working patterns, home working and adjusted duties.

Christine Husbands, managing director at RedArc, says: “Support services that offer access to a medical professional who is able to signpost to relevant services and organisations that give continuing long-term support can make a difference. It is also important to remind employees of the support services available to them, how to access them and in what circumstances they would be helpful.”

It is also crucial to add long Covid to any existing absence policies to ensure employees are not treated any differently.

In general, an individualised approach rather than a one-size-fits-all policy that is combined with early intervention is more successful in avoiding protracted periods of absence, says Suzanne Marshall, head of clinical strategy at GoodShape. “Another key step is education. Ensuring HR colleagues and managers are familiar with the symptoms of long Covid is important as this will help them to identify employees who need support. Also, make sure that HR teams are able to signpost available wellbeing services, such as occupational health referrals, promptly to affected workers.”

Legal aspects of support

Frameworks for supporting unwell employees can be applied to long Covid, despite it being a relatively new illness. Certain instances of long Covid can be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, although this varies on a case-by-case basis.

Employers should have an open dialogue with any affected employee and try to ascertain the impact of the condition, its likely duration and whether any adjustments to working arrangements are likely to facilitate a successful and sustained return to work, says Charlie Thompson, employment lawyer and partner at Stewarts.

“Fit notes from an employee’s GP tend not to be very detailed, and do not usually give much information about the impact of the condition or its likely duration,” he explains. “In addition, a GP is unlikely to fully understand the requirements of the employee’s job. It is, therefore, often in everyone’s interests to obtain a report from an occupational health specialist.”

How to prepare for case surges

It is expected that there will be a potential increase in Covid cases over the winter months, which could also lead to a rise in the number of people with long Covid, so making plans to manage potential absences will help prepare for this. Clear communication on hand washing, vaccines and ensuring that no employee experiencing illness feels compelled to come into the workplace can help.

“It’s important to remind staff about good hygiene practices like regular testing, sanitation stations where water isn’t available, wearing masks, the importance of boosters and getting this year’s flu vaccine to help reduce cases and the severity of symptoms,” says Murray.

Every employer has a responsibility to ensure the correct measures are in place to limit infection in the workplace, says Lepetit. Providing employees with access to all the information they need to make an informed decision and flexibility to attend Covid vaccine appointments is vital.

“Digital healthcare also plays an important role,” adds Lepetit. “Nowadays, more emphasis is being placed on digital technology in healthcare, and this fundamental shift in the way people access it, which has been accelerated by the pandemic, shows no signs of stopping. With these measures in place, employers can get the best from their team with a happier, healthier workforce in place.”

In addition, anything an employer can do around supporting a good lifestyle, such as diet, exercise, sleep, hydration, rest and relaxation, is also worth considering in order to help those with long Covid.

Debra Clark head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection, says: “Platforms that communicate employee benefits can definitely help a business and its employees be empowered to know their health risks and proactively do something to reduce them.”

There are multiple avenues employers can explore when offering workplace support for employees with long Covid, with advance preparation, communication and a sharp focus on healthcare and wellbeing all being key to this.

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