Supporting a return to work for staff suffering with long COVID

Written on 10 January 2022

Epidemiologists say long COVID is likely to affect over half a million people this winter, and that over 2 million have already been affected to date.

Symptoms range from breathlessness and fatigue to weakness and cognitive dysfunction. Sufferers can be affected for weeks or even months, and the long-term outlook remains uncertain. 

So, in the face of such stark facts and so many unknowns, what can employers do to best manage the impact of long COVID in the workplace?

Prepare for the potential impact

Preparing for the potential impact of long COVID on the workplace starts from the top. Organisational leaders and line managers need to understand the illness, the different ways it can affect people, and the ways that Occupational Health can provide support. This is vital in managing an employee’s illness.

Affected workers need to be referred to Occupational Health so that their symptoms and fitness for work can be properly assessed. Are they still able to do their job to the same extent? Are any adjustments needed in order to help keep them in work?

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Plan ahead

Chronic illnesses can’t typically be diagnosed quickly – so knowing what you need to plan for won’t be immediately apparent. As with other chronic conditions, diagnosing long COVID requires a minimum threshold time of 12 weeks. This means individuals must have symptoms for at least three months, with no signs of receding. While ‘waiting out’ this time, it’s helpful to prepare for a possible outcome – with Occupational Health, managers and the employee collaborating.

Flexible preparation for each individual worker is vital. Chronic illnesses are dynamic in nature – what an employee can do one day may change drastically the next. Over-exertion can make matters worse, so reduced hours and/or homeworking might be considered. Long COVID sufferers may also need more than the average number of sick days. An assessment can help to identify which adjustments are likely to bring the most benefit.

A phased return, which is often the route taken following an injury or surgery, may not be the best way for those with long COVID to return to the workplace. This is because the fatigue symptoms can persist for months, meaning a short-term phased return to the workplace is unlikely to be effective. More practical options are likely to include a longer-term planned reduction in hours, enforced and frequent rest breaks, a focus on the worker pacing themselves, or even a change of role. Emotional support for potential mental health issues should also be considered.

Reasonable adjustments

When it comes to the management of long-term illness, employers must consider the legal protections afforded to employees under the Equality Act 2010. The Act requires that employers make “reasonable adjustments” for anyone who is disabled due to a physical or mental impairment. This could potentially include long COVID; however, it will come down to whether long COVID can be classed as a disability under the Act, and we don’t have a definitive answer to this question just yet.

The Equality Act says that in order to be considered a disability, the impairment must have “a substantial and long-term adverse effect” on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. “Long term” means 12 months or longer. Long COVID could arguably go on to meet this criterion, so employers who fail to make reasonable adjustments and neglect to support staff suffering long COVID could conceivably face a costly Employment Tribunal claim later down the line.

Until there’s case law to confirm whether long COVID can be a disability under the Equality Act, we can’t be sure, though we may get clarification from Tribunal rulings later this year. Indeed, COVID-19 has still only been with us since March 2020 and there’s little guidance regarding long COVID, and the government is yet to produce any for employers.

What can employers do?

Notably, the NHS has paused its normal sickness absence provisions for staff suffering from COVID. As such, instead of an employee’s absence triggering a formal capability procedure, the pathway is opened for a conducive two-way discussion about an individual’s unique symptoms and support needs.

More scrupulous employers are certainly taking this route, and although it’s still unclear whether long COVID sufferers might be protected under the Equality Act, the sensible thing for employers to do is to engage in reasonable discussions with their employees. Doing so will help you to really understand the impact of the employee’s symptoms on their ability to work, and identify what adjustments need to be made.

HSE's impact study and return to work recommendations

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned a study to examine the scientific evidence about the impact of long COVID on work. In a review of the available scientific literature to 8 March 2021, the researchers considered the impact of long COVID on work, the workplace, and return to work interventions.

The study made initial recommendations for guidelines to help workers suffering from long COVID return to work. These guidelines are in line with existing occupational medical guidance for managers and employers on facilitating return to work of employees with long COVID and HSE guidance on managing sick leave and return to work.

While a return to work with long COVID is complex and will differ for each worker, HSE guidance recommends that employers can facilitate a return to work by:

  • Involving health professionals with return-to-work advice ASAP.
  • Having early employer contact with the absent employee – ideally within the first two weeks of the absence.
  • Involving all stakeholders (healthcare professionals, employer and line manager, etc.) in the process of re-integrating the recovering long COVID worker.
  • Primarily having a progressive, adaptive and appropriate return to work goal, i.e. workers don’t need to be 100% fit to return to work. To maximise job retention, it’s recommended that Occupational Health professionals, where available, play an active role in the return to work.
  • Preparing for a return to (adapted) work – this can be an effective part of the rehabilitation – recognising that working is generally good for health and this is also applicable to long COVID sufferers. 
  • Having Occupational Health professionals, where available, develop a close and trustful relationship with all stakeholders to help initiate a return to work. The long COVID worker should actively be involved in (re)designing their work.
  • Where possible, adequately and appropriately adapting the work of the long COVID sufferer. This requires extended information on the job, tasks, and physical and mental demands of the job.
  • Devising an individual return to work plan – this could include a phased return, flexible work, time off for rehabilitation and medical appointments, fatigue management strategies, adapting work tasks, etc.

The full report is available on the HSE website.

Being proactive and not reactive is the key take-away. Employers should be alert to the issue and build their knowledge of and capabilities around long COVID. This will help you to stay flexible and provide a strong network of support for your employees.

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Get specialist support now

If you’re struggling to manage an employee with long COVID and unsure what to do next, WorkNest can offer the advice and support you need to move the situation forward.

Our Employment Law and HR experts can help to ensure you’re fulfilling your legal duties and avoiding costly mismanagement mistakes, while our Occupational Health specialists can offer an independent, robust and evidence-based opinion on an individual’s ability to perform their role, plus advice on reasonable adjustments. We can also provide Health & Safety support to help you proactively prevent employees contracting the virus at work.

To discuss your specific situation with our friendly team, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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