From 2020, labour markets were globally disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic with people living under strict restrictions, including workplace-related changes. As well as the pandemic’s economic effects, it has emerged that people recovering from Covid report continuing symptoms, referred to as post-Covid-19 syndrome, or more commonly referred to as long Covid.
Many of those recovering are workers. While workplace support for people with health problems is known to be important, our knowledge and understanding of the return to work experiences and needs of staff recovering from Covid is limited, hindering HR’s and employers’ ability to effectively support workers.
New research exploring the experiences of workers recovering from Covid and the implications for workplace adjustments helps highlight workers’ support needs. The survey, of 145 UK workers recovering from coronavirus (aged 25 to 65 years), found that 50 per cent worked in health or social care and 14 per cent in educational settings, including nurses, doctors and teachers.
Nearly 70 per cent identified themselves as key workers. About 65 per cent experienced post-Covid symptoms for six months or more, with 91 per cent reporting typical post-viral symptoms such as fatigue and poor concentration. Just 15 per cent had returned to work fully. This article discusses the study’s key findings.
For recovering workers, people’s beliefs about their ability to resume work (at home or on-site) depends on the interaction between their symptoms, job characteristics and demands. The severity and fluctuating nature of symptoms, the volume and duration of people’s physical job demands and the complexity of mental demands and working patterns were all found to be related to people’s perceptions about their ability to work.
The quality of management, peer and HR support is important, while a lack of job security compounds the stress of recovery. Covid-friendly absence policies, an understanding about the nature of post-viral symptoms, and workers and managers having realistic expectations about the recovery process are important. Additionally, workers’ ability to get to work, access healthcare services and concerns about social distancing are important factors in return-to-work plans.
Based on evidence-based principles, the findings and workers' own views, several recommendations can be made about workplace adjustments and support to help people’s recovery and return to work after Covid. They include:
- Self-management: providing workers with training and time to manage symptoms alongside their job. For example, rest breaks, stress management training and pacing of work all help to develop an awareness of the work-relevance of symptoms.
- Return to work plans: co-developed and potentially long-term flexible plans allowing for fluctuating symptoms, which could include work-health assessments ahead of return. Plans that have manager input and undergo regular review.
- Flexible working: reduced, altered or adjustable working hours to help workers respond to and manage symptoms.
- Job and work adjustments: adjusted duties, temporary role changes, and simplified or reduced workload for agreed periods.
- Manager support: practical and emotional support from managers including with back-logged work, keeping in touch during absence, having compassionate conversations and regular catch-ups.
- Peer support: making peers aware of what to expect for recovering workers returning to work, allowing open conversations and encouraging reciprocal support.
- Sickness absence: adjusted policies that discount Covid-related absences and that are both visible and accessible.
- Raising awareness: organisational programmes that enhance awareness of Covid recovery experiences and expectations about why recovery might be possible or otherwise, thus creating compassionate organisational approaches to workers’ health problems.
While we are still learning about people’s recovery from Covid, the findings of this novel research suggest there is already much that can, and should, be done to support recovering workers. The findings reinforce some of what we know. For example, many of the suggested adjustments are unspecific to Covid, meaning employers might already have experience of them when supporting workers with other health problems.
Notably, manager support stands out as important, perhaps due to the influence they have on facilitating job adjustments. Having flexible and regularly reviewed return-to-work plans also appears vital to ensure productive and sustainable work ability levels.
The role of HR
HR is in an ideal position to contribute to overcoming the challenges faced by workers (and workplaces) in the post-Covid period. HR can play a key part to ensure employers offer effective support for recovering workers.
HR should help employers consider if existing policies and practices including adjustment, ill-health and capability procedures, are able to meet people’s support needs. Alongside ensuring workplace policies support peoples’ recovery, HR should ensure managers are provided with appropriate joined-up guidance and advice, to enable them to support affected workers so that they can sustainably resume work.
This report is based on an exploratory study examining the implications of recovering from Covid upon resuming work.
Dr Sally Hemming, an HR practitioner and PhD researcher at the University of Loughborough, was part of the research team