Long COVID: Symptoms and how you can help employees

Noel Collins - Health and Safety Team Leader

March 29 2022

First published: March 29th, 2022

COVID-19 can cause symptoms for some people that can last weeks or months after the infection has gone. This is now widely known as ‘long COVID’.

Long COVID is having an impact on businesses as affected employees try to get back to work. While people can recover from COVID-19 in days or weeks, individuals are increasingly seeing long-term symptoms that can have a significant impact on their daily lives…

Long COVID symptoms

It’s possible to have long-term COVID symptoms at any age, regardless of underlying health issues. However, women under 50 years of age are 50% more likely than men in the same age group to suffer from the long-lasting effects. Several risk factors are associated with long COVID, including obesity, asthma, and ethnicity. To avoid indirect discrimination claims based on race, gender, or age, employers must deal with long COVID equally.

Patients report a variety of symptoms, such as extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, difficulty sleeping, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles and joint pain.  Long COVID is associated with more than 200 symptoms in total. As part of its plans to support those dealing with long COVID symptoms, the Health Service Executive is preparing a national plan to help those affected by this condition.

Employee welfare

Employee welfare must be of paramount importance to all employers. Long COVID is a relatively new illness and for some employees, it can be debilitating. It may, however, be more variable in its effects, and an employee could be fine one day but unable to attend work the next. 

The complexity of long COVID can pose several challenges for employers who may be unsure of their rights and responsibilities and how to best support their staff. As such, you must deal with affected employees on a case-by-case basis. It’s important not to adopt a blanket approach when dealing with long COVID. Instead, take the time to talk with each employee individually and discuss how long COVID is impacting them. This will help to identify the individual supports that this employee needs.

Essentially, it should be treated in the same manner as any other medical condition and if necessary, you should:

  • Get a medical report.
  • Hold regular welfare meetings.
  • Consider reasonable workplace adjustments.
  • Consider changing your employee’s role.
  • Consider flexible working.

Employees returning to work

An inclusive workplace culture will help employees feel confident to discuss a health condition and ask for support or helpful changes when needed.

While you can manage employees with long COVID symptoms similar to those with other long-term conditions, some extra considerations may be required. For instance, it’s imperative that long-term absences are proactively managed and that you stay in touch with absent employees. To support an employee's return to work, you should consider reasonable adjustments and flexible work options. It’s best to hold regular welfare meetings with anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, long-COVID to better understand how they’re feeling and get any updates on their health.

If an employee returns to work after a period of absence, conduct a return-to-work screening to decide what support they need. We know the past two years have been difficult for many, so it’s critical to show due care and consideration in managing long-term illness in the workplace.

Free Download: Long-term Sick Leave

Making reasonable adjustments

When you have a clear picture of your employee’s health, you may find that they can work in some capacity. But to help them perform their best, you’ll need to make some adjustments.

There’s no clear-cut way to handle a case of long COVID. Some sufferers struggle to concentrate, while others feel incredibly tired. So, how you support your employee will depend on their symptoms and the nature of their job. For example, if your employee now gets tired easily – but has a manual role – you could change their duties to something less physical. Common adjustments include:

  • Reduced duties: Consider easing your employee’s workload or giving them less demanding work.
  • Frequent breaks: If your employee has symptoms like severe fatigue, extra breaks could help them regain strength.
  • Remote working: Staff could feel more rested and relaxed at home. Plus, they’re already at home if they need to stop working and rest.
  • Flexitime: Allowing staff to choose their start and finish times means they can work when they’re feeling their best.
  • Changing their role: You could temporarily tweak staff duties to ease the nature of their symptoms.

Staff wellbeing and the benefits of an EAP

It may be the case that returning employees don’t feel comfortable talking to you, their employer. If so, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is a very useful tool.

Should your employees require specialist assistance, an EAP provides access to a confidential 24/7 helpline, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions, and online physical and mental health assessment tools.

Questions about long COVID in the workplace?

If you have questions about long COVID or workplace health and safety, we can help. To speak with one of our health and safety consultants today, call 0818 923 923.

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