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Long Covid leading to mistreatment, bullying and job loss

Employees with long Covid have been mistreated at work and one in seven (14%) have lost their job for related reasons, a new study has found.

A survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and peer support group Long Covid Support has found two thirds (66%) of employees with long Covid said they had experienced one or more types of unfair treatment at work. 

This includes one in six (16%) who had been subject to bullying or harassment at work.

More on long Covid:

Long Covid impacting half of UK organisations

Long Covid recognised as disability in landmark tribunal

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

According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released in January 2023, there are 2 million people in the UK suffering from long Covid. Symptoms include fatigue, cognitive dysfunction and difficulty with breathing.

Almost two thirds (63%) of respondents to the TUC’s survey said the illness has limited their ability to carry out everyday activities. 

Half of respondents (49%) said they thought they had contracted Covid-19 at work.

Sarah Garth, partner at Keystone Law, said as long Covid is such a new condition and difficult to diagnose, it is difficult to know what employers’ duties are when supporting employees with the condition. 

The general duty to provide a safe work environment free of bullying and harassment does apply however, she said, and if an employee’s long Covid symptoms amount to a disability, there are further legal implications about their duty of support.

Speaking to HR magazine, Garth said: “In more extreme and long-term cases, it could potentially amount to a ‘disability’ which would give the employee protection under the Equality Act 2010.

“This would be where it is having a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, long-term being where it has lasted for 12 months or is likely to last 12 months or more.”

Almost a quarter (23%) of respondents said their employer has questioned whether they have long Covid and/or the impact of their symptoms. 

According to Garth, if this happens the best course of action would be to request an occupational health assessment.

She said: “If that request is refused, it may be appropriate in some circumstances for the employee to raise an internal grievance to try to resolve the issue. In extreme cases, there may be grounds for the employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal, and potentially disability discrimination.”

More than one in 10 (12%) suffering with long Covid have not informed their employers of their symptoms. 

A third (36%) said it was because they did not think their employer would do anything and 31% said they were worried their symptoms would be viewed negatively by their employer.

Of the employees who asked for changes in their job to accommodate their condition, half (50%) were not given all or any of the changes needed to manage their job.

Adam Hadfield, clinical governance manager at wellbeing consultancy GoodShape, said the lack of training around long Covid leaves managers unequipped to support employees and employees feeling stigma around reporting their illness.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Regular communication and a robust return-to-work strategy, with tailored forms and processes, will support line managers and HR departments, and ensure employee return is managed in the most suitable manner.

Hadfield recommended that employers put a specific long Covid policy in place.

He said: “A long Covid policy is a must for organisations, to outline how sufferers are supported and help them continue to work. While the specifics of treating long Covid are still emerging, there are a number of common-sense steps that employers can take to support staff with confirmed or suspected cases.

“These include educating staff on long Covid symptoms, to encourage acceptance in the workplace and adding long Covid to the absence policy to signal that it is a valid illness and fast-tracking occupational health referrals, so sufferers are treated promptly and given the level of support they need.”

The TUC and Long Covid Support have called for the government to specify long Covid as a legal disability so they are protected under the Equality Act 2010, strengthen flexible working rights and provide universal access to occupational health.

This report summarises the findings of a self-selecting survey of 3,097 people with long Covid in September and October 2022 on their experiences of work.