Managing long Covid in the workplace

Helen Snow explains how employers should deal with employees who are experiencing longer-term symptoms of the virus

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With Covid restrictions eased across the country and infection rates falling, employees are slowly starting to return to the workplace. Employers can be forgiven for hoping that this signals the beginning of going back to ‘business as usual’. 

But while there’s cause for optimism, it might be premature for employers to think they will never have to consider the impact of Covid again. Although Covid is a short illness for most people who contract it, some experience symptoms for many weeks or even months after the initial infection. Known as ‘long Covid’, or ‘post-Covid-19 syndrome’, this is something employers and HR practitioners need to be aware of.

The list of long Covid symptoms encompasses everything from the well-known symptoms of a cough and fever to neurological symptoms like dizziness and cognitive impairment (brain fog). These can come and go, with sufferers sometimes feeling better and sometimes feeling worse.

While it’s not known exactly how many people in the UK are experiencing long Covid, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey reported that an estimated 1.8 million – nearly 3 per cent of the population – were experiencing self-reported long Covid symptoms in April. This has increased from 1.3 million in December last year.

The ONS also says 784,000 people have lived with long Covid for more than a year, and 74,000 for at least two years.

Advice for employers

Employers must apply the same considerations to employees with long Covid as they would to those with any type of long-term medical condition. That means making sure they have comprehensive policies governing absence, sickness and long-term sick leave in place.

It also means considering whether employees with long-term Covid meet the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. Employers that are unsure of the status of an employee with long-term Covid should consider getting an occupational health report to better understand the condition and any prognosis as well as considering whether reasonable adjustments may be needed for the employee, such as changing their working arrangements or hours.

Managing long-term sickness absence will always be a balance between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the individual. An employer is not required to retain an employee who is on long-term sickness indefinitely, particularly in circumstances where this is putting pressure on other employees or is hampering the employer’s business activities.

However, employers must ensure that the necessary absence management process is undertaken, and the relevant medical evidence is obtained before any decisions are made regarding an employee’s ongoing employment. A failure to do so may result in an unfair dismissal claim, which may be combined with a disability discrimination claim if the employee is covered under the Equality Act. If a claim is successful, the employer could face funding a large cash reward to the ex-employee as well as the associated reputational damage to the business.

We have already seen several high-profile cases of unfair dismissal and discrimination linked to Covid-19, including cases that have involved inadequate protections in the workplace and employers forcing employees back to work. In most of the successful claims, it was the employer’s failure to follow a fair and reasonable disciplinary or capability procedure that saw the claims upheld.

It’s only a matter of time before we start to see cases coming to tribunal involving long Covid. Employers need to ensure that they deal with such cases fairly and in accordance with their own policies to ensure that they are not the subject of those cases.

Helen Snow is a partner at Geldards