Coping with long Covid

What can employers do to support employees with long Covid? Kerry Dulac provides some advice

Even with Covid restrictions being lifted, we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. It is estimated that there are still 1.3 million people in the UK suffering from the lasting effects of long Covid. Of these, 64% reported that their symptoms, which include fatigue, breathlessness, chest pain, dizziness, sickness and ‘brain fog’, can adversely affect their day-to-day activities. 

We know that long Covid symptoms can be experienced by individuals regardless of the severity of the initial infection. Neurological, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, psychological, gastrointestinal, dermatological and ear, nose and throat, and general symptoms such as fatigue, fever and pain are being reported over 12 weeks following the initial infection. How long it takes to recover from Covid will be different for everybody. While most people re-cover quickly, some people have symptoms that last weeks and even months after the in-fection has gone. 

For those who are back at work, there is no-doubt that long Covid can have a negative impact on their ability to perform normal duties. An employee presenting with symptoms such as brain fog and fatigue after returning to work, could have significant difficulties managing their working hours, or the demands placed upon them in relation to workplace tasks or workload. There may also be risk considerations in relation to duties that require high levels of concentration and safety measures may be required. 

There may also be risk considerations in relation to duties that require high levels of concentration and safety measures may be required

As a duty of care, employers must ensure that that they have the right measures in place to support employees that are affected, considering the impact of any ongoing symptoms on their functional level and how this may impact their ability to perform their workplace duties.

So, what do employers need to do to make the shift from prevention to support? 

Training – spotting the signs and symptoms
It’s important to train managers and team leaders on how to recognise signs and symptoms of long Covid displayed by an employee and how to correctly respond to these. As time goes on, we are getting better at recognising long Covid as a condition but there are things to look out for. As well as the symptoms already mentioned, the employee could also be suffering from joint and muscle pain, fever, exhaustion, insomnia, headaches and loss of smell. There are also mental health issues to be mindful of such as anxiety and depression. 

Employers also need to understand that symptoms will come and go during the recovery, so some days the employee might feel better than on others.

Employees are encouraged to inform their employers of any symptoms of concern that may affect their ability to carry out their job role. If an employer is aware of the challenges the individual is facing, the business can put in place necessary steps to help ease the burden. Regular and open communications channels should be used where the employee feels comfortable raising the subject. Some employees may feel like they can’t say anything for fear of letting the team down. But the reality is that unless they give themselves the time and space to fully recover, they could end up being absent for longer or making mistakes that would be detrimental to the team. Making it clear that employees can talk about how they feel and reassuring them that the business is supportive of their needs is key. 

If someone is off sick with long Covid, they may also feel isolated from the team or need support to return to work. Where this occurs, employers should have a process in place that determines the method and frequency to make contact with the employee during their absence. This may be through their line manager, HR or can sometimes work best with an external clinical provider who can effectively mediate between the employee and employer with both a clinical and vocational understanding. Both parties should explore and discuss the support options available to them in a return to work.

Occupational health assessments
When an employee is on sick leave for long Covid or returning to the workplace, it is advisable to arrange an occupational health assessment. You may have your own in house function or work with a traditional occupational health provider or clinical wellbeing service. Either way, an expert clinician will assess that they are firstly, ready and able to return to work, and secondly, whether any changes in working practices or environment are needed to enable the employee to return to work safely. 

After the assessment, the clinician will put together a report providing recommendations and advice on what sort of support should be put in place. This could include suggesting a phased return with reduced hours to allow time for recovery, through to adjustments to the role to help ease any pains in joints. 

Occupational health case management reviews for the impacted employee should be con-ducted on a regular basis to ensure they are still receiving the right support.

Identify and make necessary adjustments
Once an assessment has been completed, the employer and employee should work together to consider which of the changes identified by the assessment would be appropriate and reasonable to enable the employee to continue working effectively. 

There are other considerations too. For someone who is suffering from social anxiety, could they have their own dedicated workspace instead of hot-desking or take a remote / hybrid approach to working? Could other adjustments be made for the individual such as flexible working hours and avoiding heavy lifting? These measures also go a long way to ensuring the employee feels valued by the organisation. 

As time goes on the prevalence of long Covid is becoming more apparent, and as knowledge increases, individuals are starting to identify that their symptoms may be related to a previous Covid infection. As we become more aware of the wide range of symptoms, we will have a greater understanding and be more pro-active in gaining the right treatment and support at an earlier stage. Considering that symptoms presenting after the infection may not have been experienced during the initial stages, highlights those individuals should seek medical assessment to clarify the cause of the symptoms to access the correct support and services. 

We are learning more and more about the effects of long Covid, and as with the initial infection stages the severity, symptoms experienced and duration of long-covid symptoms are very variable, and therefore an employee’s unique needs in relation to their presentation need to be assessed as we move along our journey of managing this new condition into 2022 and beyond.

Kerry Dulac is occupational lead and rehabilitation case manager at HCML


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