My employee has long COVID: what should I do?

David Price – CEO of Health Assured

November 03 2021

Studies show that 1 in 10 of us are likely to have had COVID-19 by now. So the chances are, you already know how to handle a positive case.

Usually, your staff self-isolate for ten days, claim statutory sick pay, and return to work. So far, so ‘new normal’…

But what happens when your employee is still struggling after ten days? Or worse, months later? With symptoms like severe fatigue, you could face lengthy staff absences.

From covering their absence to handling their return, we’ve covered all you need to know about supporting staff with long COVID.

Treat it like any long-term absence

A case of long COVID can last for many months. So if your employee is struggling with long-lasting symptoms, you should treat it like any long-term absence.

That means you need to:

  • Get a medical report
  • Hold regular welfare meetings
  • Consider any workplace adjustments
  • Consider changing your employee’s role
  • Provide statutory sick pay for up to 28 weeks (if your employee is eligible)

To learn about what you need to do for each step, read on for more detail.

Get a medical report

When your staff are off with a long-term sickness, it’s important to understand their level of illness. A medical report from your employee’s GP will let you know:

  • How long the illness is likely to last (so a potential return-to-work date)
  • How the illness might impact your employee’s duties
  • What kind of adjustments you may need to make

Before you request a copy of your employee’s report, remember your legal duties under the ‘Access to Medical Reports Act 1988’. This means you can only request a report if you’ve notified your employee first.

You need explicit written consent from your employee. Once you’ve got this, you can pass it over to their GP and request a report.

Hold regular welfare meetings

Holding regular welfare meetings will benefit you both.

Sufferers of long COVID often feel frustrated, anxious, or isolated. So while your employee is off work, you can regularly reassure them that you’re there to listen or provide support.

Plus, regular meetings allow staff to update you on their health. You can keep track of any progress, new treatments, and updates from their GP. When you have a good grasp on your employee’s health, you can decide how best to support them on their return to work.

It’s good practice to allow your employee to invite a friend or family member to any meetings. This means they feel fully supported and relaxed.

Make 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 is 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 be less physical.

Common adjustments include:

  • A phased return to work.
  • 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.

Cover any absences

If your employee is unable to work at all, you’ll probably need to cover their absence.

This could mean hiring a worker on a temporary or zero-hours contract. Or, if you have an idea of when your employee may return, you could hire a worker on a fixed-term contract.

For example, you could agree to give your employee two months’ off to recover – and hire a worker to replace them on fixed two-month contract.

Similarly, you could employ a temporary worker through an agency. Remember, if you hire an agency worker, they’re entitled to ‘equal treatment’ after 12 weeks of work. That means your agency staff should get:

  • The same pay as a permanent colleague doing the same job
  • Automatic pension enrolment
  • Paid annual leave

But if you can’t hire a replacement, you might split your employee’s workload between your remaining team.

If this involves asking for overtime, keep a close eye on staff’s working hours – the extra hours could mean their average hourly wage dips below the National Minimum Wage. Plus, consider offering perks and incentives to keep morale high.

Be wary of tribunals

If your employee is off for several months, your business could seriously suffer. So if you’re struggling to meet demand or cover shifts, it’s understandable if you’re considering further action.

And if you’ve completed all of the steps outlined in this article, you could consider dismissal as a last resort.  

However, this can put your business at risk. You should only consider termination after genuinely trying to support your employee and exploring all of the options we’ve covered. Otherwise, you could face unfair dismissal claims.

Plus, if long COVID symptoms persist over 12 months, it could be considered a disability. And that could put you at risk of a discrimination claim.

If you’re in doubt, call our employment law advisors for support on 0800 028 2420. You’ll get practical advice to get the best outcome for you and your staff - without putting your business at risk.

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