Kerry Dulac, Occupational Lead and rehabilitation case manager, HCML
As the world begins to ‘re-open’, businesses across the UK are facing a new set of challenges. Employers are now having to navigate the world of hybrid working whilst also having to support employees suffering from long Covid. With an estimated 1.3 million people in the UK  suffering from the lasting effects of long Covid, it is integral that employers have measures in place to support employees returning to work in both a phased and full-time capacity.
Of the 1.3 million people affected, 64% reported that long Covid adversely affected their day-to-day activities. With neurological, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, psychological, gastrointestinal, dermatological and ear, nose and throat, and general symptoms such as fatigue, fever and pain being reported over 12 weeks following the initial infection there is no doubt that long Covid is having a negative impact on employee’s ability to perform normal duties.
So, what do employers need to do to best support their team on a mental and physical basis and how can businesses make the shift from prevention to support?
Long Covid is unlike any illness employers are likely to have experienced in the past. The wide spectrum of symptoms, and lack of research at present, means that advice is continuously changing for those living with the illness, and their employers. With so many unknowns, millions of people with long Covid are trying to go about their daily lives, including working, whilst suffering from debilitating symptoms. To date, there is no research that confirms the duration of long Covid and this can feel daunting for the individual suffering and have a detrimental effect on their mental health.
One of the most important things an employer can do is to ensure that the employee suffering from long Covid feels supported in their return to work.
Long Covid symptoms, and the severity of them, will differ with each person who suffers and can come and go throughout their recovery, so a tailored approach is required for each individual. It’s also important to note that long Covid symptoms can be experienced by everyone, regardless of the severity of the initial infection. Therefore, an employee who experienced mild symptoms when they had the infection, may be suffering from a range of unpleasant long Covid symptoms that are more severe.
Employers whose team members are suffering from long Covid symptoms should arrange for the employee to undergo the relevant occupational health assessments, whether that be through a traditional occupational health service or clinical wellbeing provider, to determine what support is required, whether a phased return is necessary and how the individual’s condition can be managed in the workplace. This type of assessment will also determine whether a referral to specialist treatment services such as physiotherapy or psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are required.
With long COVID symptoms including fatigue and brain fog (a non-medical term describing a collective of symptoms including poor concentration, forgetfulness, confusion and mental fatigue), employers must be prepared that employees experiencing these symptoms may have difficulties carrying out their usual tasks, or working hours, and may not be performing at their best. Employers may need to make adjustments to the employee’s role such as light duties, environmental or ergonomic adjustments.
Businesses should be encouraged to make all employees aware of long Covid so that the managers and colleagues of those suffering from long Covid symptoms are aware of anything to look out for e.g breathlessness, chest pain or dizziness. It’s important to make these individuals aware of what to do if these symptoms present in the workplace to ensure the employee suffering is both safe and supported. Privacy for the individual should be upheld during this process and how much, or little, the individual wants their team to know about the condition can be discussed during the health assessment.
In addition to the assessment carried out before the employee returns to work the reviews should also be used as a preventive measure to reduce the chance of absences and conduct ongoing reviews. These assessments will ensure that the employee is still receiving the right support and provide an opportunity to make any further adjustments that are necessary, particularly as new symptoms may present at different times.
Between these assessments, a designated member of staff should also be assigned to regularly check in with the employee to ensure they are being supported on a physical and mental level.
As we learn more about the full impact of long Covid, we will start to better understand how we can best support those who have been affected. We know that everyone’s needs are complex and unique and there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ solution. But as we move forward into the new normal, employers will benefit from putting guidelines and procedures in place that enable those who can to get back to work through a progressive, adaptive and appropriate return to work plan.