Nearly half of firms have employees who have experienced long Covid during the last year, a poll of employers has found, with experts urging businesses to train line managers to support staff with the illness.
The survey of HR and L&D professionals, conducted by the CIPD and Simplyhealth, found 46 per cent of organisations had employees who experienced long Covid symptoms in the last 12 months, with one in four (26 per cent) now listing the condition among their main causes of long-term sickness absence.
However, the research, which polled professionals from 804 organisations employing a total of 4.3 million employees, found that a fifth (20 per cent) were unaware of whether any of their workforce had experienced ongoing symptoms from Covid-19.
Long Covid, also sometimes known as ‘post-Covid syndrome’, is where signs or symptoms of coronavirus last for longer than 12 weeks after an initial infection. The most common reported symptoms include fatigue, breathing issues and cognitive dysfunction.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that nearly 2 per cent of the population – some 1.3 million people – reported having the condition last year.
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said that long Covid was a “growing issue”.
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“Employers should ensure they have a supportive and inclusive culture that helps employees feel confident to discuss a health condition and ask for support or helpful changes when needed, such as a phased return or flexible working arrangements” she said.
Suff added that line managers should be trained on how to support team members with the condition and “facilitate a successful return to work following illness”.
“Managers should bear in mind that employees might be reluctant to discuss ongoing health symptoms, so should check in with their team regularly and ensure there are opportunities for them to flag any issues” Suff said.
The report found that only a quarter (26 per cent) of organisations provide line managers with training and guidance on how to support people with long-term health conditions to remain in work, while just 19 per cent provided guidance for employees.
However, the research found employers were doing something to support staff. The majority (70 per cent) of employers that had experienced long Covid symptoms said that they offered occupational health assessments; 60 per cent said they offer tailored support for individuals affected; and 58 per cent promoted flexible working among their employees.
Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells, said that organisations would see benefits of upskilling managers on long Covid, “both in terms of risk profile and staff morale and engagement”, he said.
He also cautioned that some employers may need to work on challenging misconceptions around long Covid, warning that some staff “may question its genuineness”, adding that long Covid symptoms were “poorly understood” and that getting a diagnosis can be difficult for employees, emphasising that employers should not confuse potential symptoms with malingering.
“Long Covid is not automatically classified as a disability, but in serious cases it can meet the definition. If it does, the full protection of the law will apply,” he advised. “Malingering is clearly unacceptable but if that is the starting point for managers the genuine cases are likely to be mishandled – which will be costly.”
Dr Karen Michell, research programme lead for occupational health at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said that a “multidisciplinary team approach focused on rehabilitation and symptom management” was essential for employees who aim to return to resume work.
“Whether it’s physical restrictions [such as] shortness of breath or cognitive impairment [such as] brain fog, you are managing workers who may be unable to cope with work for entirely different reasons, necessitating an individualised approach to care” she said.
Michell encouraged line managers to involve the worker in decision-making: “Ask the worker for suggestions on working life adjustments… address the mental health issues through good communication, and provide realistic assurances and advice where necessary” she said, adding that regular monitoring of an employees’ functionality will be key to success.
The CIPD report cautioned that long Covid disproportionately affected those aged 35 to 69, those living in deprived areas, and women. It is also more likely to affect those who work in health and social care, and people who already have an activity-limiting health condition or disability.
It also found that the vast majority (85 per cent) of those with the illness experience worsening symptoms after a period of improvement, noting that relapse often presented individuals with new symptoms.
Michell warned that organisations would continue to feel the “legacy” of Covid, and that it was essential the wellbeing of the worker was central to their recovery approach. “It isn’t clear how long it will take workers to fully recover from long Covid but there’s a real prospect that we’ll have to manage the health and safety of workers with long Covid for years to come” she said.