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Employment

Playing the Long Game

Long Covid

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Playing the Long Game – How to Manage Staff with Long Covid

Long Covid is amongst us and very likely to remain despite our use of vaccines. To date it’s reported that there are almost 1 million sufferers of this condition in the UK, (970,000 people exhibiting continuation of symptoms after the Covid-19 infection according the ONS). 384,000 individuals report a continuation of symptoms over 12 months post diagnosis.

Research in the US has identified that as many as one in three people infected with coronavirus will experience at least one symptom of long Covid. Much of the existing research has been based on self-reporting various symptoms post diagnosis often months after they were originally ill with the virus.

Researchers at the University of Oxford, the National Institute for Health Research and the Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre have uncovered the potential scale of the after-effects having studied over a quarter of a million (270k) individuals, based in the US who were recovering from coronavirus. This study found 37% of patients had at least one long Covid symptom, medically diagnosed three to six months after their original infection. The most common symptoms were anxiety and depression followed by breathing problems, abdominal pain, and fatigue.

  1. Anxiety or depression were the most common of nine core long Covid symptoms reported among 270,000 people in the US whilst recovering from the infection.
  2. Anxiety and or depression 15%
  3. Abnormal breathing 8%
  4. Abdominal symptoms 8%
  5. Chest and or throat pain 6%
  6. Fatigue 6%
  7. Headache 5%
  8. Cognitive problems (‘brain fog’) 4%
  9. Myalgia (muscle pain) 1.5%
  10. Other pain 7%

We are still learning and studying the impact of Covid-19 but it is likely, given this latest extensive research exercise, that your staff may exhibit symptoms well beyond the expected “recovery” point for an infection.

With a staggering 200 symptoms recorded as being associated with Long Covid it could prove difficult for employers to manage staff if it begins to impact their attendance. Naturally as a caring and supportive employer you will be mindful of the need to accommodate an employees need for rest or further medical support. It may result in an employee taking long periods of sickness or requesting an accommodation of working terms to compensate for the effects of the condition.

Whilst most employees will be honest about their symptoms and condition there is always a potential minority who will seek to capitalise on the broad list of possible symptoms to justify non-attendance. The difficulty would be in “calling out” any fake claims of illness.

So how do employers tackle the tricky issue of balancing the genuine sufferers vs those willing to play the “Long Game” taking unnecessary leave in the name of Long Covid.

  • The first incidence of absence due to Long Covid should be handled sensitively and compassionately.
  • Be supportive and assess the symptoms expressed as those causing the absence and record the event.
  • Subsequent episodes of absence referenced to Long Covid will also require a check and balance against the previous case and determine if a pattern is developing.
  • If symptoms are common, assess if there are lifestyle or work associated triggers that you or the employee may be able to assist with and minimise.
  • If symptoms vary establish if the events also follow a pattern such as a day of the week, month when work may be more stressful.

Quite often a sympathetic ear and a conversation with staff may determine a greater appreciation of what’s going on with their work and home situation and notably with flexible working it’s helpful to gather as full a picture as possible.

Repeated absences are obviously disruptive not only in terms of the absentee’s productivity but also the impact on colleagues who may find themselves having to cover work with little, if any financial return or recognition.

It’s always worth engaging with the member of staff to better understand their condition and to facilitate this through and occupational health assessment.

This can help with:

  • making changes to the workplace or to how the employee works (‘reasonable adjustments’), such as different working hours
  • a phased return to work
  • what they want to tell others at work about their illness

It is worth stressing that whilst an employee may play the Long Covid game rather than be honest about a reason for an absence, the condition is very much real and recorded scientifically. To that end you should not assume an employee is “faking it” if they report symptoms but take the time to properly assess their circumstances.

Quite often time taken to discuss the absence and condition with an employee and being as informed as possible on symptoms and associated remedies can mitigate the risk of those willing to “pull a sickie”.

If you are at all concerned about the issues raised in the above article and wish to consult an expert in the field, please don’t hesitate to contact Robert Gibson or Martha Craven. Call Robert Gibson or Martha Craven on 0191 2328451 or e-mail robertgibson@samuelphillips.co.uk or marthacraven@samuelphillips.co.uk

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