As Long COVID rates climb, how can employers support their staff?

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While we’re by now, sadly too familiar with the devastating impact of COVID-19, there is still relatively little known, or indeed talked about when it comes to Long COVID.

Health experts and the government are now turning their attention to this creeping and debilitating phenomenon, with Chris Whitty remarking we can expect to see a significant increase in Long COVID cases this year.

So, in practical terms what does this mean for employers?


More on Long COVID in the workforce:

Long COVID: rethinking ill-health and the world of work

Long COVID – is it the new Yuppie Flu?

Long COVID could change work for all with long-term illness


I recently met with a Long COVID sufferer and FirstCare user who consented to share his story to help shine a light on what is currently a blind spot for most organisations.

A healthy, active 40-year-old male, he began feeling unwell in early January but his COVID tests came back negative. His condition continued to deteriorate, and he attended an out-of-hours clinic, where the on-duty doctor informed him of his long COVID diagnosis. 

By mid-February he felt a little better, however a 30 minute walk resulted in an ambulance being called.

A month down the line and his desire to return to work was thwarted when during a meeting call he became short of breath, called 999 and was taken to hospital.

A chest x-ray and blood tests came back normal, but his consultant decided to refer him to one of the few NHS COVID Respiratory Clinics in late February.

Despite this, he wanted to return to work, and his employer wanted to support him but neither knew what they were dealing with.

Fast forward several months and following medical intervention, a growing understanding of the symptoms and close communication with his employer, he has been able to return to work with reduced hours.

So what should employers look for and how can they offer help?

Long COVID symptoms are broad and can impact cognitive, physical and emotional functionality.

This coupled with the fact that receiving a Long COVID diagnosis can take time, (in this case, the process was still ongoing after five months) flags the challenge employers are likely to face. 

A good start is education: ensure HR professionals and managers are familiar with Long COVID and put it front of mind.

In this instance, the recovery road map was “up and down”; one day good, the next day, not so much.

Long COVID manifests itself in a variety of ways but crucially it hangs around and recovery can be slow. In this scenario the employee had access to advice from our registered nurses around the clock, which supported his recovery significantly.

Add Long COVID to your absence policy: ensure affected employees are not treated less favourably because of their illness. Could a phased return or flexible hours help? And signpost any support services your company may offer its staff.

Most critical of all, don’t delay talking to your employees about it. Early intervention can help more serious problems developing and our case highlights the ongoing pressures in the NHS and the delays long COVID sufferers may experience in getting diagnosed and accessing support.

Despite his ongoing debilitating symptoms, our case study has returned to work on a reduced hours programme,  which he feels has been incredibly effective and he is now about to attempt his first full week.

This illustrates how early intervention and best practice shown by the employer through its clearly defined wellbeing policies can help companies overcome the hurdles this new and challenging illness presents.

 

Suzanne Marshall is clinical governance officer at wellbeing and productivity company FirstCare