Is your business
Most people who contract Covid-19 will fully recover. But employers should prepare for the fact that many will experience a long and challenging journey back to good health.
Since the Covid crisis unfolded earlier this year, I’ve shared a number of articles on the subject; discussing how businesses can support colleagues with the short-term impacts of the pandemic; the mental health issues arising from the isolation of homeworking and anxieties over job security, along with physical issues such as reduced access to medical treatment and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as increased alcohol consumption.
While many employers have risen to the challenge and made creditable efforts to manage risk and protect their staff, we are now learning more about the potential long-term effects of Covid, and the diverse range of reactions to the virus. Awareness of ‘Long Covid’ began when Covid sufferers began sharing their experience of remaining unwell for weeks and months after developing symptoms. Some had experienced scepticism from their GPs, and had struggled to get support with managing their symptoms. Many took to social media to compare their situation with others.
Now that the condition has transitioned from the message boards to medical research, it’s time to consider how employers can support the many thousands of people who are likely to experience Long Covid in the coming months and years.
A working definition of the condition is not recovering for several weeks or months following the start of symptoms that were suggestive of Covid, irrespective of whether you were tested or not. Acute fatigue has emerged as the most common symptom, but these can also include cough, breathlessness, muscle and body aches, chest heaviness or pressure, depression, migraines and cognitive impairment (or ‘brain fog’).
However, we are still learning. Nine months ago, there was no available clinical data on Covid-19 at all. While our understanding is improving, there is still much that is unknown about the behaviour of the virus. In terms of the outlook for those with long-term symptoms, there are lessons which can be learned from existing research on typical recovery patterns in cases of Sepsis, SARS and other post-viral respiratory conditions.
According to the Covid Symptoms Study, the condition is twice as common in women than men. The same study found that 10% of those infected with Covid experienced symptoms for over a month, with an estimated 60,000 people in the UK experiencing symptoms lasting longer than three months. Research suggests that around 80% of those experiencing long-term Covid symptoms will recover.
Treatment and support for those with Long Covid
The NHS has already made a number of resources available online through the ‘Your Covid Recovery’ programme. This is a new digital programme designed to support recovery from Covid, developed by a wide range of expert professional bodies and societies - as well as those with first-hand experience of the disease.
However, the absence of established definitions for the condition is proving a challenge for medical professionals aiming to support these individuals. And there will be specific challenges around returning to work for those suffering with longer-term symptoms.
This is where the skills of an Occupational Health Practitioner can prove invaluable. They are skilled in the management of fatigue, the principal symptom of Long Covid, and can provide support where employees are experiencing other symptoms which could affect work performance, for instance cognitive impairment.
Now that government advice has reverted back to a recommendation to work from home, this option may well be beneficial to those experiencing post-Covid fatigue, allowing for more flexibility and avoiding the exertion of travel. A phased return to work may also be of benefit, so employees can make a gradual return to their normal work delivery and contracted hours.
Adjustments may be needed to an individual’s workplace, whether that is at home or another setting, to accommodate symptoms and minimize discomfort. Make sure your company’s policies are visible and flexible enough to deal with a range of support needs.
Finally, many of those reporting Long Covid symptoms also report a significant mental health impact, and this shouldn’t be underestimated. We’re already seeing the impact that the pandemic is having on mental health; so ensure that access to support is clearly signposted and wellbeing is an ongoing area of focus in your communications and engagement approach.
It’s important to make sure your line managers understand that recovery from Covid can be long and complex, and that affected staff will require regular check ins and ongoing monitoring to ensure they remain healthy and productive.