With the removal of legal restrictions triggering a surge in Covid-19 infections, there is likely to be an increase in employees experiencing lingering symptoms. Organisations’ response should be two-fold, and they should consider how they support employees with long Covid, writes Mark Philpott
Individuals and businesses are now encouraged to adopt a “common sense approach” to managing Covid-19. This sounds far more relaxed than the situation we’ve been used to over the past two years, but for many, learning to live with Covid-19 is anything but.
Now self-isolation periods have ended we are likely to see employees continuing to work despite confirmed illness, which poses a risk of outbreaks.
For some people Covid-19 symptoms have been little more than a cold and many others have tested positive without any symptoms at all. However, thousands of others have experienced hospital admission, serious symptoms or even symptoms that have remained long after the infection has passed, sometimes known as ‘long Covid’.
Not the common cold
A lot of rhetoric at present is about treating Covid-19 like we treat the common cold. To an extent, adopting a general health, wellbeing and sickness policy does help to manage the risk of transmission and reduces the likelihood of mass absences. However, it will be many years, if ever, before Covid-19 poses a risk as low as the common cold.
The common cold is part of the coronavirus family of diseases. However, Covid-19’s novel nature means it is far more likely to develop into a new variant. Our experience of new variants during the pandemic should highlight how vastly different one variant can be from another in terms of symptoms, transmissibility and mortality rate.
So, what can employers do to lower the risk the virus poses to their staff as we move into this next phase of the pandemic? How can they reduce the risk of long Covid? And how can HR ensure employees with long Covid are cared for upon their return to work?
These are just a few questions I have been asked as CEO of NPH Group, an occupational health and wellbeing firm. And while occupational health providers cannot control how long Covid is managed in the workplace, they will suggest that an organisation’s approach in the next stage of the pandemic should be two-fold.
Helping prevent long Covid
One side must be preventative. To minimise the likelihood of long Covid, organisations must take all possible steps to prevent workplace transmission, such as encouraging testing and advising employees to stay off work if they experience symptoms.
To minimise the likelihood of long Covid, organisations must take all possible steps to prevent workplace transmission, such as encouraging testing and advising employees to stay off work if they experience symptoms.”
It is advisable to educate staff about their individual risk. When this risk is established, a suitable plan for in-person working should be drawn up. For example, vulnerable employees might only visit the workplace on a limited basis to reduce close contact with others, working at home for most of the time.
The adoption of health surveillance and monitoring can also aid prevention by keeping tabs on infection and asking those who test positive not to come into work.
Managing existing cases
When it comes to supporting employees who have long Covid, consulting an occupational health specialist is beneficial as they can make recommendations on reasonable adjustments.
Not all measures need to be costly, and most can elevate productivity. If people feel looked after, they will be more engaged in their roles.
Of course, it must be considered that those who have long Covid might also suffer mentally as well as physically. Conditions like extreme fatigue, brain fog and difficulty sleeping are common with long Covid and are likely to affect a person’s mental state considerably.
A less visible, but equally important addition to managing employees with long Covid is the creation of an open and honest culture at work, which should promote healthy discussion and peer support. This can be supported through a variety of measures including an initial professional occupational health assessment. An assessment might include educational advice on exercise, healthy eating, and sleep. If necessary, it might also include referral to psychology or counselling therapies, physiotherapy, or the GP for advice on medication.
An occupational health advisor can recommend any adjustments that may be required to support an individual suffering with long Covid, such as a slow reintroduction to the workplace that will ensure their psychological safety and physical wellbeing.
Whatever interventions may be appropriate, it is most important to take a holistic approach and consider that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to long Covid.
If organisations continue to adopt testing, managing, and monitoring of Covid-19, and complement this approach with the creation of an open and honest culture at work, the benefits will be abundant. In a purely commercial sense, staff absence will decrease and productivity will increase. On a human level, staff will feel safer, valued, and happier.