How employers can support employees with long COVID
Long COVID could have a big impact for employers for many months to come. It is a relatively new illness that is not yet fully understood and may keep employees from returning to work for indeterminate amounts of time.
It is the mortality rate that has grabbed headlines, with COVID-19’s biggest effects seen among older people, who are no longer in employment. Many people of working age who caught COVID had relatively mild symptoms and did not require hospitalisation.
However, a picture of Long COVID is now emerging, which shows that the chances of having long-term symptoms does not seem to be linked to how ill the person is when they first catch Coronavirus. This means that many employers who thought their staff had a mild version of the illness and would be back to work soon may now find that their employees are not fit for work for many weeks or months to come.
What is Long COVID?
Long COVID is a form of COVID-19 with symptoms that can last for months. Many people may find it takes time to recover fully from regular COVID, but this is not the same as Long COVID. Also known as Post-COVID Syndrome, Long COVID is defined as the presence of symptoms that last longer than 12 weeks.
How many people does it affect?
When investigated by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), up to one in ten people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had prolonged symptoms that match the current definition of Long COVID.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Long COVID can include
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Chest pain/tightness
- Memory and concentration issues
- Sleep disturbances (insomnia)
- Heart palpitations
- Pins and needles
- Joint pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Earache or tinnitus
- Digestive problems - feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach-ache, loss of appetite
- Raised temperature, cough, sore throat, headaches
- Changes to sense of smell or taste
The implications for employers
There are impacts of Long COVID that will affect the employer as well as the employee. There is the issue of presenteeism, with people returning to work when they are not really well enough to do so. There is also the opposite issue of employees not being able to return to work for some time, and not knowing when they are likely to feel well again, which of course creates staffing issues.
The symptoms of Long COVID vary greatly from person to person but the one similarity is that it can be really debilitating, to a person’s mental or physical health, or both.
What an employer should do if an employee has Long COVID
Anyone suspecting they have Long COVID should be encouraged to speak to their GP. There are also some free online resources to which an employer can direct any employee who has, or suspects they may have, Long COVID. These include the NHS website and Your COVID Recovery, from the NHS.
Benefits that support employees with Long COVID
There are many employee benefits that will support people with Long COVID. These may be with the physical or the mental effects of the illness.
The good news is that many private medical insurance providers will often cover the care and treatment of Long COVID patients. This could be a particularly valuable resource to employers in supporting their staff through the illness, and ensuring they are fully fit and well before they return to work.
Many benefits will offer access to further support not necessarily immediately associated with the initial benefit. For example, group risk products: life assurance, income protection, and critical illness, will often provide additional support. These may be through options like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), or online GP appointments.
Access to virtual GPs used to be reserved for employees covered under private medical insurance, which often meant it was limited to just a select few in an organisation. However, online medical services and virtual GP appointments are now also available on a standalone basis. This means that they are more readily open to the whole workforce, something that could prove extremely helpful for anyone suffering from Long COVID.
EAPs can help people find much-needed support for their mental wellbeing, such as counselling services for depression and anxiety associated with Long COVID, and guidance on how to cope with aspects like sleep disturbances and fatigue.
Occupational health and rehabilitation services schemes can be a great support to assist employees in returning to work.
Brett Hill, Distribution Director at Towergate Health & Protection, said: “There are many support services available for employees suffering from Long Covid. Despite this being a new and relatively unknown illness, the help to beat it and make a healthy return to work is often already available through existing benefits provision, so it’s important employers understand the detail of what their current benefits include. If employers don’t have support in place, it can be implemented. The important thing is to get the right advice.”