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

We all want to stay well – that’s why we drag our not-fully rested bodies out of bed early to do a workout and convince ourselves that a Caesar salad is just as tasty as a burger and fries.

But one of life’s cruelties is that we can take all the precautions and vitamin supplements Holland & Barrett has to offer and still end up ill.

Sometimes employee sickness rears its head as a dodgy stomach bug or this year’s flu, but often it’s less visible to spot.

As we slowly extricate ourselves from the pandemic’s clutches, those who have recovered from the initial symptoms of coronavirus have found they are still struggling, months later. Long COVID is impacting the nation in harmful and bizarre ways, and this is inevitably leading to issues at work.

Some Long COVID sufferers can no longer work their usual hours, remember the names of all their clients or stay on their feet all day. Those who were fit go-getters have now experienced, for what may be the first time, what it’s like to have a long-term illness.

I happen to have one of these illnesses myself. I have fibromyalgia, an energy-limiting condition where the major symptoms are pain, brain fog and fatigue. Joyous. For a long time, I tried to keep my illness and work separate. I’d ignore what my body was saying and continue at full throttle regardless of whether I was living in pain.

What next for HR post-COVID-19?

Reader: this did not end well. I’d wake up in the night crying out in pain and then spend the day in a haze, trying to keep up with my workload. This was obviously unsustainable, and after a conversation with my line manager I was able to make reasonable adjustments for when I wasn’t feeling well.

But why did I suppress what my body was telling me for so long? Because I had absorbed the message that to be good at my job, I had to be sat behind my desk and work my socks off. I would ignore the tell-tale signs of my illness and pretend it was not a part of me. Like thousands of workers up and down the country, I felt professional success didn’t have space or patience for illness.

That’s why it’s so important for HR to bring conversations around sickness, illness and disability into the mainstream. Conversations that don’t just suggest a gratitude journal or a lunchtime walk, but ones in which employees feel comfortable to disclose if they are not feeling well. In which they are asked, and more importantly listened to, how work can better accommodate their illness.

I want more leaders to feel empowered to say if they’re struggling with illness. I want employees to ask for the reasonable adjustments they deserve. And most important of all, I want illness and disability to take its long-overdue place at the diversity table.


Jo Gallacher is editor of HR magazine


This article appears in the May/June 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.