Post-Covid | Are employees with Long Covid receiving the support they need?

Are employees with Long Covid receiving the support they need?

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Despite the complexity of Long Covid, there’s much that can be done to help support employees, ideally at an early stage. This includes expertise ranging from Occupational Health, Vocational Rehabilitation and specialist Long Covid support programmes via group income protection, to flexible working and other reasonable adjustments, where appropriate.

But it seems that not everyone is receiving the support they need. Is the answer to make it mandatory for employers to provide support?

In a report published earlier this year, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggested many employees with Long Covid were receiving unfair treatment at work. They said this ranged from harassment to being disbelieved about their symptoms, according to two thirds of Long Covid sufferers surveyed. One in seven respondents even claimed they’d lost their job, according to the TUC. This comes against the backdrop of just over 2 million people who have now had self-reported Long Covid for at least a year and up to two years in some cases – according to latest data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

The TUC stated: “failing to accommodate the 2m people who, according to ONS data, may be suffering from Long Covid in the UK, will create ‘new, long-lasting inequalities’”.

The TUC has called on government to designate Long Covid a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. The thinking is this will ensure legal rights to reasonable adjustments, such as flexible working, disability leave and phased returns.

To mandate or not to mandate…

However, the experts we spoke with for the purposes of this article suggested that a mandate is not the answer. They added that there are things that employers could and should be doing right now, regardless of an official mandate.

“If a condition is having a substantial effect on an individual’s day to day activities and it has already lasted – or is deemed ‘likely to last’ – 12 months or more, it would qualify under the Equality Act 2010 anyway – it doesn’t have to be a designated condition,” states Diana Kloss, Barrister and former Employment Law Tribunal Judge, who has written a leading book on Occupational Health Law. Diana is also an honorary fellow of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians.

Diana continues: “It’s important to bear in mind that symptoms of Long Covid are variable. Care should be taken not to label people as automatically disabled, lest they regard themselves, and are perceived by others, as permanently incapable of doing any productive work. They need to be encouraged to think positively. Long Covid is partly medical, partly psychological, and partly the way society regards you and that’s all equally important. The key is for employers to help their employees get a functional assessment, not a diagnosis. This is about looking at what they can do, not what they can’t do.”

Dr Julie Denning, Chartered Health Psychologist, Managing Director of Working To Wellbeing, and Chair of the Vocational Rehabilitation Association, concurs with Diana, adding that employers have a duty of care to their employees, whether the Equality Act 2010 is involved or not. She adds that conditions such as Long Covid are not black and white; it’s not a case of being fit for work or not. Rather it is about focusing on what individuals can do, not what they can’t, as Diana has stated.

Julie adds that culture is key to helping normalise conversations on disability. She has found through her work with some big organisations that it’s not unusual for two people in the same company to have completely different experiences when it comes to support. “That for me is a bit mind blowing. Technically, you’ve got the same culture, same values, same processes and policies. And yet different experiences. We see this across other illnesses, not just Long Covid, especially where a hidden disability is concerned. If it’s something you can’t see, there’s an assumption by the people you’re working with that you look fine, so you must be fine. I think people are concerned about making a disability disclosure for lots of reasons.”

Kay Needle, Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Expert at Generali UK Employee Benefits, agrees that workplace culture needs to better support conversations about disability; all disabilities, not just Long Covid. And that those conversations need to start at the very top.

“I’m not surprised by the TUC’s findings and it’s not specific to Long Covid. We are very aware that discrimination in the workplace continues to be an issue for people with any long-term health condition. The Equality Act 2010 may have gone some way to addressing that, but it’s difficult to assess its impact. It has helped change the way we define disability in the workplace. However, if we go back to 2008, 19% of disabled people reported they’d experienced unfair treatment at work compared with 13% of non-disabled people. So, that was prior to the Equality Act coming in.

“A study of 2020 annual reports of FTSE 100 organisations, found that not a single executive or senior manager had reported a disability. Some said they preferred not to say or otherwise did not disclose. I found it difficult to believe that none of them has a disability. Meanwhile, Valuable 500, an organisation that does a lot of work to encourage employers to commit to providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, did similar research and found that only 3% of leaders would speak openly about their disability or caregiving role.”

Kay suggests that the absence of such conversations is likely to contribute to unfair treatment of people with long term health conditions like Long Covid.

So, what steps should employers take, as a minimum, when an employee says they’re suffering from Long Covid?

  • Refer the individual for a functional review, not a diagnosis. As pointed out by Diana, while GPs know about medicine, they don’t know about the work context. Refer to Occupational Health if the organisation has such support in place. Or Vocational Rehabilitation. Check insurance policies already in place for access to relevant services, such as Long Covid support programmes.

  • Whether the condition falls within the auspices of the Equality Act 2010 or not, consider appropriate reasonable adjustments, according to professional advice (see point above). Reasonable adjustments might include flexible working, time off for appointments or treatment, a change to the duties of the job. Remember that the employer only has a duty to make adjustments that are ‘reasonable’ adds Diana.

  • Where an individual is absent but there’s a longer term potential for recovery, work with the support available, whether that be Occupational Health, Vocational Rehabilitation and / or group income protection, to help provide the early intervention and rehabilitation support required to prevent people falling out of work.

  • If an absence prevails and there isn’t a longer term potential for recovery, ill-health retirement might represent a last resort course of action, if available, says Diana. She adds that it should be borne in mind that this would involve the individual having to certify they are unable to work ever again in the role they were contracted to do by that employer.

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice.

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