Managing long covid in the workplace

June 21st, 2021

The long-term effects of covid-19 will be felt for years to come. The pandemic has changed so much about our everyday lives, from how we work to how we interact with one another. For those who have suffered from covid-19 infections, many are still feeling the effects daily due to what is known as ‘long covid’.

A recent survey by the Office of National Statistics estimates that one-fifth of people diagnosed with covid-19 are still suffering ‘long’ symptoms five weeks later, while one in ten had symptoms that lasted for three months or even longer.

What is ‘long covid’?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) categorises long covid as lasting for longer than 12 weeks. There are two main symptom groups – respiratory issues including breathlessness and extreme fatigue, and a secondary generalised group that can range from something as simple as pins and needles in the limbs, brain fog and listlessness, to issues with the major organs including the heart.

The effects can also include mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Symptoms have been likened to other long-term debilitating conditions such as ME and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (PoTS). The groups most likely to feel the effects of long covid are older patients, women, those with underlying health conditions (in particular diabetes) and those in their mid to late-40s and early 50s.

The long road back to work

The affected groups cover much of the UK’s workforce, so how should employers be tackling the issues surrounding long covid? Many of those suffering from the effects of long covid may find it difficult to return to work, and even weeks later could be struggling to cope with the everyday demands of a busy job. Businesses across the UK are struggling to get going again after months of depressed sales, limited growth and a workforce that’s become used to working from home. So accommodating those who are still suffering the physical after-effects of covid 19 could pose some serious challenges.

Bear in mind that long covid is not contagious, so there is no reason that someone suffering from the condition should be barred from returning to the workplace, as long as their self-isolation period is over. They won’t infect other workers, and the process of returning to a stable workplace may actually help some of the mental issues caused by long covid, including depression and loneliness.

Workers don’t have to tell their employer that they are suffering from long covid, but in reality, it would be beneficial for the employer to know so that they can accommodate the needs of the worker.

The Equality Act 2010

Employers also need to be cautious, as there is the possibility that long covid that persists for months could be regarded as a disability. If this is the case then the employee could be protected by the Equality Act 2010.

The Act does make provisions for long-term conditions such as MS, cancer and HIV. Long covid could ‘tick the boxes’ when it comes to the definition of a ‘long-term’ illness, having a substantial effect on the sufferer’s ability to undertake day to day activities. If a person’s long covid did satisfy the test of disability, then an employer would be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to take account of that person’s illness.  Such adjustments could include flexible working arrangements (including working from home or changing an employee’s hours of work), reducing their hours, allocating some of the employee’s duties to others or agreeing a phased return to work.

Employers should consider taking the initiative and talking to their employees about what they need to be able to do their job comfortably and without undue pressure. One key element of this should be to carry out a risk assessment alongside a back-to-work meeting and, if possible, an occupational health assessment. These are carried out by qualified medical experts, and can give an impartial and balanced assessment of the needs of the worker.

If you’re an employer and want to find out more about accommodating workers suffering from long covid, talk to an employment law expert today.