Many businesses have been in prevention mode throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. By encouraging employees to work from home or in a distanced fashion within offices, plants, and headquarters, businesses have been actively avoiding the spreading of COVID-19 between its employees.
However, as the pandemic evolves and we face the reality of dealing with coronavirus long-term, businesses are moving from prevention to support. This is certainly the case with instances of Long Covid which are on the rise causing some employees to suffer from long-term side effects that impact them at work.
But what is ‘Long Covid’? And how can you manage its impact in the workplace?
What is Long Covid?
‘Long Covid’ refers to the ongoing ill-health experienced by some people following the initial or acute period of COVID-19 infection. For many people, COVID-19 is a short illness. However, for others, symptoms can persist and can be debilitating for weeks, or even months, after the virus is contracted.
The medical profession is still learning about – and adapting to – mutations in coronavirus, but recorded data now tells us that some patients with Long Covid may not have ever returned a positive coronavirus test result, whether through a false negative result or through having contracted COVID-19 before widespread testing was available.
Just as the acute onset of COVID-19 can affect different people in different ways and to different degrees, the reported symptoms of Long Covid vary significantly between patients but include the following:
• Fatigue, or extreme tiredness
• Breathlessness and difficulty in breathing
• Chest pain
• Racing pulse
• Joint and muscle pain
• Loss of taste or smell
• Prolonged fever
• Balance problems
• Skin rashes
• “Brain fog” – not being able to concentrate or think clearly
Given the sheer volume of symptoms of Long Covid, patients may not understand what is wrong with them and, therefore, may not know where to go for help. Therefore, COVID-19 testing is strongly encouraged as the employee will be able to identify that they have previously had coronavirus and that their symptoms may be a result of Long Covid.
As there is no test specifically for Long Covid, it’s important to make sure you approach workplace management by recognising the symptoms and not just the syndrome. If someone has Long Covid, business-wide recognition of the symptoms will mean that your employees can start to receive the support they need, medically, personally, and professionally.
Where should employers start?
Doing what you can, as early as you can, will improve outcomes and help manage Long Covid related absences in future. Your timely intervention will not only help anyone in your team who is experiencing debilitating symptoms of Long Covid, but will also ensure that those who are unwell make a fuller, quicker recovery.
In these circumstances, a healthcare package for your people is key. Not all business healthcare options are equal, so it pays to consider a package that covers physical and mental health and wellbeing needs. Long Covid can be physically and emotionally draining, which is where the support of private healthcare can be incredibly beneficial to ensure that your people receive the help they need – and feel able to access that help voluntarily. This could prove especially important in cases of Long Covid which have resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.
A business healthcare provider such as Benenden Health can offer services that allow your team to talk about their symptoms, struggles and fears. This is the other key area we would encourage employers to be mindful of: keeping the door more open than usual and prompting conversations around Long Covid, whether with someone affected by it or amongst the team to facilitate greater understanding of its implications.
Managing an employee with Long Covid
It’s undeniable that managing an employee with Long Covid is difficult: they are not obliged to tell you of their condition, which is where the encouragement to talk and the provision of confidential third-party support can be so valuable. Fear of a job loss or any sort of backlash could otherwise prevent someone from seeking the help they need.
If you are aware that a team member is suffering from Long Covid, you can work with them to define an appropriate level of work, any down time needed and any adjustments you need to make to their role whilst they recover. With their permission, communicating their challenges to the wider team will ensure that everyone rallies to cover any gaps in work, whilst offering some much-needed camaraderie to their colleagues.
Reasonable adjustments and occupational health
Given Long Covid’s potential to affect many people – a review of your approach to reasonable adjustments would be a good idea. Could you work more closely with someone who has been affected by Long Covid, to check in regularly on their condition? Could you tweak their working arrangements in a continuous fashion to suit? Can your people be successfully re-deployed to more suitable arrangements whilst they recover? The reality of Long Covid means that many employers are having to revise their application of reasonable adjustments.
Not every business has the means of employing an occupational health department, which is where outsourced services can be particularly valuable to ensure your assessment of someone’s needs is fair to them and the business. Specialists can work with you to work out the best way to repurpose a job role, so that the team member in question avoids burnout and relapse, whilst allowing them to make a valuable contribution to your business.
Structuring your team for support
The pandemic has taught us all to be agile, as businesses and individuals. This spirit must continue, in order to adequately support teams that are affected by changes to their structure and output as a result of one or more of their members dealing with Long Covid.
In practical terms, this may look like role sharing, continued flexible working, robust wellbeing initiatives and a thriving communications channel between you and your team, whether online or offline. All of these measures will ensure that work is completed on time for the business and on the terms that allow each of your team members to deliver to their fullest, in the way that is most comfortable to them.
For more information on how you can support your employees during the coronavirus pandemic, visit Benenden Health’s COVID-19 workplace hub: https://www.benenden.co.uk/be-healthy/work/covid-19-workplace-hub/ .