The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the way we live and work. To date, most workplace energy and resource has gone into reducing the risk of COVID-19 spreading. What about the long term effects though, known as long COVID or post-COVID syndrome?
Long COVID shared characteristics with other long-term health conditions, both in the symptoms experienced and the impact on the person’s ability to carry out their day-to-day activities.
It’s true to say that we are still learning about the real impact of long COVID on physical and mental health.
What is long COVID?
It’s been defined by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as
“signs and symptoms that develop during or following an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis”.
How many people are affected?
One in five experience symptoms lasting between 5 and 12 weeks but one in ten experience symptoms lasting 12 weeks or longer. An estimated 1.3 million people are experiencing self-reported long COVID, roughly 2% of the UK’s population.
The three most common debilitating symptoms reported are:
- Breathing issues
- Cognitive dysfunction (memory loss, brain fog, concentration and speech difficulties).
Most importantly, symptoms can be unpredictable and can fluctuate over time. Many people report periods of recovery and sudden relapse. Mild symptoms can be followed by new or severe symptoms impacting on the ability to perform day-to-day tasks. Symptoms can last for many months and recovery can be slow and gradual.
Long COVID has a sustained impact on day-to-day activities and this meets with the recognised definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010, namely:
“a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
What does an employer need to do?
Aim for early and consistent communication with an employee who is absent from work. Introduce flexible, slow and gradual return to work patterns while encouraging ongoing support from colleagues and managers.
Consider changes to your absence management processes to make them flexible and supportive for fluctuating conditions;
Seek expertise and support from medical professionals such as Occupational Health;
Increase knowledge and understanding in the team by providing training and support;
Recognise employee rights and employer responsibilities relating to disability.