Throughout the pandemic so far, you’ve carried on working and living life as normally as possible. But then one day, you fall ill with COVID-19. You feel dreadful for weeks and wonder if each day is your last, but you escape hospitalisation.
Then one day, you begin to turn a corner and the fever, aches, breathlessness and the cough begin to ease. Within a few weeks, you hope to be back to your old, healthy self.
But as the weeks pass, you don’t feel like yourself. Tasks that once required little thought or exertion leave you wiped out. You struggle to walk for ten minutes without getting breathless. Although you’re working from home again, you can’t focus properly because of the heavy cloud of brain fog that won’t shift.
Some people recover from COVID with no lasting symptoms. For others, coronavirus can cause physical and mental symptoms that last for weeks or even months after the infection has gone. Referred to as ‘post-COVID-19 syndrome’ or ‘long COVID’, it can be debilitating.
With many people heading back to work after being furloughed or off sick, long COVID is likely to have an impact for employers as staff struggle with the symptoms. So how best can managers support workers fighting with the after effects of COVID-19?
“The NHS lists many symptoms of long COVID, including extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration,” says Kate Palmer, HR Advice Director at the employment law, HR and health and safety firm Peninsula.
“All of these can affect someone in their work, regardless of the type of job they do. It will mean that tasks are harder to complete, will take longer, and may mean that the employee cannot carry out specific areas of their role.”
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In the first instance, long COVID should be dealt with in the same way as any other medical condition. There is no one way to support employees with lasting symptoms. Some may find it hard to get to work because of their reduced lung function, and others may struggle with their concentration and focus.
“Employers should always consider each situation individually when employees are suffering from a medical condition because the effect on each person can be different,” Palmer says.
“The important thing is not to have a blanket approach to employees who are confirmed to have long COVID, which means discussing with each employee to identify how it affects them and deciding on the support needed to ensure the employee can continue working well.”
People returning to work after long-term sickness will also need to be managed carefully and sensitively, depending on how long they have been away.
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“They may require adjustments to their working day to help them settle back into their role. These adjustments may need to be more permanent if they continue to suffer the ill effects of long COVID for some time,” says Palmer.
These adjustments might be changes to their responsibilities, working from home instead of commuting to the office or different working hours. Employers communicate with each individual to find out how best to support them.
And for those worried about the impact of long COVID on their job security, it’s important to know your rights.
“Employment Tribunals consider various different elements when deciding whether a condition is to be treated as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. One of these is whether the condition has long-term effects, which means that it has lasted or is expected to last for 12 months,” Palmer says.
At this stage, we simply don’t know whether long COVID meets this definition because of its newness. If it does —and it has a substantial adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out day to day activities — it will likely be considered a disability.
“This means employers must make reasonable adjustments for employees, and they will be protected against other forms of discrimination due to their illness,” says Palmer.