Working with long Covid

Anna Chabrelie explains how employers can best support staff suffering from the condition in the workplace

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What is long Covid?

The term ‘long Covid’ is generally used to describe signs and symptoms that continue to occur or develop for more than 12 weeks after an individual has contracted and suffered the effects of Covid-19. Tens of millions of people worldwide are believed to be currently suffering from long Covid.

The Trades Union Congress conducted a study relating to workers' experiences of long Covid. It found that fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, pain-related symptoms and depression were the most experienced symptoms. It is also worth noting that the effects of long Covid can come and go – on some days the person might feel better, but on others they may need to be off work again.

Why should employers be aware of long Covid?

An employment tribunal has recently concluded that, depending on the specific symptoms experienced by the employee, long Covid can be a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Accordingly, businesses should be aware that they may have to make reasonable adjustments for those employees who are suffering with long Covid symptoms, in the same way as for other employees with a disability. Additionally, if employers are considering commencing a capability process or dismissing an employee with long Covid, they should ensure their absence management policies are fit for purpose and followed properly – only then would an employer be able to argue that the process was fair.

Both a recent UK survey and Bank of England officials have suggested that long Covid could be one of the main factors behind widespread labour shortages in Britain. In the survey 98 per cent of long Covid sufferers said the condition had limited their ability to work, with 78 per cent needing to cut back or change their work and 19 per cent having ceased work altogether.

Given that many businesses are struggling with staff recruitment and retention, it will often be worth considering whether adequate measures are in place to ensure employees are fit to return when they do – and will remain fit in the long term. It is in nobody’s interests for an employee to return too quickly and then suffer a deterioration in their health and ability to attend work regularly. It is better not to focus solely on getting an employee back to work as quickly as possible.

What should businesses do when an employee says they have long Covid?

It is best to treat suspected long Covid like any other health condition. Employers should ensure they have relevant medical evidence in front of them before making any decisions. Invisible illnesses are, by definition, harder for an employer to identify. This makes open communication with the employee crucial to help them remain in work and to do so comfortably and productively.

An ongoing dialogue between an employee and employer can go a long way to reducing the risk of grievances or tribunal claims. Just as importantly, this helps to create a supportive and inclusive environment.

Businesses have learned a lot about flexible working over the last two years, with many having been forced to move to remote working. As employers reintroduce office working, it is important to consider whether a degree of flexibility can be maintained, especially considering remote working has been popular among employees in the UK.

Flexibility means different things to different people and what is practicable in one business may be impracticable in another. Where there is scope for greater flexibility, this can extend beyond allowing hybrid home working to include, for example, allowing an employee to shift their working hours forward if their symptoms are more severe later in the day, or back if mornings are particularly tough.

Facilitating flexible working arrangements for employees with health struggles will often help to avoid long-term absences and other issues arising – especially at a time when the NHS is suffering from lengthening waiting lists and the number of working-age people who are off on long-term sick leave has risen by 378,000 since the onset of Covid.

Simply being mindful and supportive, and showing that you are willing to consider creative solutions, can make a huge difference in an employee's productivity and efficiency. For more information, employers should refer to Acas's advice on long Covid.

Anna Chabrelie is an associate at Dentons