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How can employers support employees with Long COVID?

6 min read | 19 May, 2021 By Nick Hardy


Long COVID is likely to have significant implications for people and businesses for a long time after the crisis.

Long COVID is the term being used to describe illness in people who have either recovered from COVID-19 but are still reporting lasting effects of the infection, or have had the usual symptoms for far longer than would be expected.

Although clinical research into the condition is well underway, there remain many unknowns and questions that need to be answered about the long-term implications for those who are suffering from the condition.

There are reports that some Long COVID sufferers seem to recover, only to relapse and find themselves coping with difficult and debilitating symptoms.

In this article we explore some of the emerging facts about Long COVID and also the steps employers can take to support employees who have been diagnosed with the condition.

What are the symptoms of Long COVID?

How many people are affected by Long COVID?

Long COVID and employee absences

Practical steps for dealing with Long COVID

Is Long COVID a disability?

Final thoughts...


What are the symptoms of Long COVID?

The most common symptoms – a full list of these is available on the NHS’ website – include the following:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Problems with memory and concentration ("brain fog")
  • Insomnia
  • Heart palpitations

Medical professionals and scientists are also reporting the following patterns which are being used to diagnose Long COVID and address sufferers’ needs in terms of the ongoing treatment they require:

  • Ongoing symptomatic COVID-19 – symptoms that last 4-12 weeks after a patient has initially contracted the virus
  • Post-COVID-19 syndrome – symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks and can’t be explained by any other diagnosis
  • The chances of having long-term symptoms does not seem to be linked to how ill a sufferer was when they first contracted COVID-19
  • People who initially experienced mild symptoms when diagnosed can still have the long-term problems associated with Long COVID

How many people are affected by Long COVID?

GOV.UK recently announced findings from extensive research which indicate that that up to 2 million people in the UK may have had Long COVID. Between September 2020 and February 2021 over 500,000 adults were surveyed, with 1 in 3 experiencing persistent COVID-19 symptoms lasting longer than 21 weeks.

People who tested positive for COVID-19 are around eight times more likely to suffer prolonged symptoms than observed in the general population.

Long COVID and employee absences

Because Long COVID is a recently identified condition, our knowledge and understanding of it is still very much evolving. Yet, what is clear is that it can result in individuals being off work – even sometimes completely incapacitated – for weeks or even months on end.

In a recent and highly-recommended People Management article, Karen Matthews, a member of the LongCovidSOS campaign group, said: “It can affect employees in different ways. Some people are unable to work with their symptoms and have mobility issues. Some are on reduced hours or have agreed with their workplaces to have phased returns.” And while some people are able to go back to work full time, “in the worst-case scenario sufferers are now losing their jobs as they have used up their statutory sick leave period”.

Another emerging pattern is that the symptoms of Long COVID can come and go in sufferers. Someone can seem to be making a full recovery, only for them to relapse and require further rest and periods of convalescence.

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Practical steps for dealing with Long COVID

Long COVID is a serious condition and in October 2020 NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens pledged £10m for the setting up of specialist clinics for Long COVID sufferers that are able to carry out physical, cognitive and psychological assessments.

Establishing the new clinics remains a work in progress. While the NHS are already making rapid progress in terms of understanding and treating Long COVID, employer-backed practical help and emotional support for sufferers will be key to signposting people to medical care and services which, in turn, will help steer them back on the path to recovery.

Although many SMEs leaders who prioritise the wellbeing of their people will be committed to supporting those with Long COVID, this duty of care must also be balanced with the practicalities of long-term absences and the challenges with which these are associated. For smaller businesses in particular, the absence of one or more team members could have a direct impact on performance and revenue.

Employers that encourage their employees to access a Long COVID support programme at the start of their illness, and prior to a significant deterioration in their physical or mental health, are likely to see a faster return to normal than those who don’t take the impact of the illness seriously.

Presenteeism – where employees suffer from Long COVID feel compelled to demonstrate their availability to employers, despite being unwell- could hinder recovery and in turn, a return to work and pre-illness performance levels.

ACAS – among other support organisations – suggest that employers should speak to their insurer, employee benefits consultant or HR adviser to get a better understanding of what, if any, support is already included within their current employee benefits packages. If you need professional HR support, Breathe are partnered with more than 500 HR consultants and employment law experts, listed in our partner directory.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and Occupational Health can also help people find much-needed support for their mental wellbeing, such as counselling services for depression and anxiety associated with Long COVID, and guidance on how to cope with aspects like sleep disturbances and fatigue.

Is Long COVID a disability?

Although Long COVID is now a clinically recognised medical condition, it has yet to be classified as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, although there some predictions that this may become the case.

Under the law, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial and long-term' negative effect on a person's ability to do normal day-to-day activities.

'Long term' means the impairment:

  • Has lasted or will last for at least 12 months
  • Can come and go or is likely to last for the rest of the person's life

As a relatively new illness, we don’t yet know what ‘long term’ really means. Hopefully, with treatment and support, sufferers will make full recoveries.

For the time being, ACAS suggest that employers focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make rather than trying to work out if an employee's condition is a disability.

Reasonable adjustments need to be made in line with a person’s individual needs and circumstances but could include:

  • Reduced working hours
  • Workload adjustments
  • Changes to their working environment
  • Extra support from other staff

Prior to any adjustments being made, it’s key to communicate with an employee who is suffering from Long COVID to understand exactly how they are feeling and what you as an employer can do to accommodate their needs.

Clearly documenting the details of conversations and plans is key. If there are ever any disputes about the management of a situation, the ability to evidence what was agreed by parties concerned will be essential.

Final thoughts...

With the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out now successfully underway, and with the number of reported cases falling every day we will hopefully see a corresponding decline in the number of people diagnosed with Long COVID. At time of writing, however, there is a worrying increase in the spread of the Indian variant of the virus although, reassuringly, the early data suggests that the vaccines are proving to be effective.

Although workplace absences due to COVID-19 will hopefully become rarer as times goes on, for the moment, it looks like those suffering from Long COVID will need long-term support and treatment. This will be provided by dedicated medical professionals but understanding and caring employers who do everything they can to support people will also be playing a key part in their recovery.

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Posted on 19 May, 2021

By Nick Hardy

in COVID-19

Tag COVID-19

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