What does long Covid mean for your business?

Ross Miller, Head of Workplace Wellbeing Services and Sam Delaney, Occupational Health Clinical Lead at Cantium Business Solutions shares with Business Leader about the impact ‘Long Covid’ could have on your business.

To date, it’s estimated that over 2 million people have been impacted by long Covid. The symptoms which range from breathlessness and fatigue to weakness and cognitive dysfunction can affect an individual for weeks or even months, and the long-term outlook still isn’t known. In the face of a new, potentially large cohort of chronically ill employees, how can businesses manage the impact of long Covid in the workplace?

Be mindful of the impacts

Being prepared for the potential impacts of long Covid on the workplace starts from the top. Business leaders and any line managers need to understand the illness and the different ways it can affect people. If employees do start presenting symptoms then they should be referred to occupational health professionals, so they can be assessed and then their fitness for work determined. It’s important to note that reviews of fitness to work can be made later, so the first decision reached does not have to be the final decision.

Planning support ahead of time

With infection rates still currently high, it’s natural to want to think ahead to alleviate any potential staffing problems but it’s a difficult one to call. Typically, chronic illnesses cannot be diagnosed quickly, so it won’t be obvious what you need to plan for right away.

The minimum time threshold for diagnosis of long Covid is twelve weeks, this means individuals may have symptoms for at least three months at a similar intensity with no signs of them disappearing. This is also true for other chronic conditions. For long Covid there will usually be a period of illness with Covid, plus ongoing symptoms for twelve weeks or more, that must be waited out. During this time of ‘wait and see’, it’s helpful to prepare for a possible outcome, with management, occupational health professionals and the employee collaborating together.

Preparing flexibility for the employee is vital. Chronic conditions are dynamic in nature, what someone can do one day could change drastically the next and over-exertion may make it worse. If made available, reduced hours and home working can also be utilised to support the employee but there is also a need to recognise that long Covid patients might need more than the average number of sick days.

Getting back to work

A phased return, often used after injury or surgery, might not always be the best option for re-joining the workplace. Fatigue and joint pain can persist for months, so this method, with its defined short-term phasing back into the workplace, is unlikely to be effective in rehabilitating the employee. A longer term planned reduction in hours, enforced and frequent rest breaks, a focus on pacing themselves, even a change of role – all these will options have to be considered.

Also think about emotional support for potential mental health issues. Depression and anxiety have a higher prevalence among the chronically ill, so planning effective Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and counselling support will help staff to deal with them if they should arise.

What to do if you don’t have an occupational health team?

Long Covid is still a very loose term – after all, it has been less than two years since Covid became a term at all. 12 weeks after acute Covid, you could still have symptoms, but it might not be as severe as Long Covid. There is no rhyme or reason as to who gets it long term, and it’s difficult to care for in the workplace if there aren’t specialist provisions.

Without having access to occupational health support via their employer, employees will have no choice but to visit their GP and access support that way. GPs are exceptional at providing primary care but they are limited in their understanding of the workplace and how a period of chronic illness can affect the individual in their role.

Employees do not typically want to rely on overstretched GPs for conditions that can have such a strong link to their ability to work, and they don’t have to. Companies without the capacity for an occupational health team could struggle to cope if many employees feel the effects of Long Covid. It’s important to build that capability, whether in house or with a delivery partner. The partner should understand the different roles at the company they are working with, so they can refer people correctly.

Being proactive, not reactive, is the key take-away here. Be aware, build your knowledge and capabilities as an organisation to stay flexible and be a strong network of support for employees.

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