Managing the effects of ‘long Covid’
27 May 2021
With the introduction of recent ACAS guidance for employers and employees on ‘long Covid’, we look at what it is, what the guidance recommends, and how to manage absence and prepare for return to work where an employee has been suffering with ‘long Covid’ symptoms.
What is long Covid?
The NHS definition for long Covid details that for some people, the effect of Covid-19 can be more severe and/or debilitating and can continue on a longer-term basis (after initial symptoms have subsided). For those people, coronavirus can cause symptoms lasting weeks or months after the infection has gone. The NHS guidance states that most people feel better after a few days or weeks and most make a full recovery within 12 weeks, but for some people symptoms can last longer.
There are a range of reported symptoms that have been linked to post Covid-19 illness. Common symptoms include: extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, difficulty sleeping, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles, joint pain, depression and anxiety, tinnitus, earaches, feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite, a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste and rashes.
How do employers know if employees have it?
It is important to communicate effectively with employees to understand their symptoms and how they are affected. It is worth recommending that an employee seeks medical advice, which may initially be from a GP. It is possible that due to lockdown the employee may have not had medical check-ups for some time, and if there is an underlying health condition this may be causing some or all of the symptoms instead of long Covid, or existing conditions may be making recovery take longer.
Getting an Occupational Health report could be useful to try to establish things like the nature of the symptoms, their severity, whether they are constant or intermittent, what could assist or aggravate them, the likely length of time before recovery is expected, and how to approach any phased return regarding appropriate hours and duties. We recently explored the topic of managing ill-health and absence issues, including long Covid, in our recent webinar where Nicola Brown from our team and Occupational Health clinician Dr Tarek Abdel-Raheem Aly of Prospérité Occupational Health addressed common legal and medical questions. You can view the recording here.
What does the ACAS guidance suggest?
The guidance encourages employers to demonstrate sensitivity from the outset by communicating effectively with the employee to seek how they could be supported, to see how a phased return could be managed and reasonable adjustments considered, to assist employees to return to their roles. ACAS advocates understanding that symptoms may be intermittent. Also, that supportive contact with employees should be maintained whilst they are away from work and should include a discussion about what their colleagues will be told about the reason for the absence. ACAS encourages employers to do everything they can to assist struggling employees before following a capability process, but if this step is necessary, that they should follow fair processes.
Follow a fair absence/sickness management process
The process that employers follow to manage sickness/incapacity will depend upon whether there is short-term or long-term sickness. Employers often have their own capability and/or disciplinary procedures which relate to managing sickness absence, but it is always best to take advice regarding a particular situation.
It will be important to remember Covid risk assessments when employees return to the workplace, even if some employees have already caught Covid once before, or are vaccinated.
Whether long Covid symptoms amount to a disability under the legal definition will depend upon the extent of the effect of the symptoms on the employee’s ability to carry out their normal day to day activities. It also depends on how long the symptoms last. ACAS warns that long Covid is still a new illness, and that it may take time to fully understand it. Symptoms may come and go for several months and affect normal daily tasks. Long Covid may also cause or exacerbate other impairments.
ACAS also warn that as long Covid appears to be disproportionately more prevalent in specific categories of people; older people, ethnic minorities, and women, that employers need to avoid discriminating by age, disability, race or sex.
Concerns about returning to work
It is worth speaking to employees in good time before their return to work, to identify any concerns they may have. Employees may be concerned that other staff may treat them differently for fear of catching Covid from them. They may be concerned about the effect of illness on their capability or may have health and safety concerns about the workplace. Listening to concerns can allow an employer to address issues and reassure the employee, where possible. If the process raises legal questions and you need to discuss these with us, we will be happy to assist you.
If you are an employer dealing with a sickness management issue, then we can help. Please call us on 01243 836840 for a no obligation chat, or email us at [email protected].