New research into “long Covid” by Imperial College London shows employers face longer-term difficulties as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The REACT study, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, surveyed half-a-million adults and found 37 per cent of people who had contracted Covid-19 had also experienced at least one symptom for 12 weeks or more. This is potentially up to two million people.

Chronic conditions and long-term illness are familiar challenges for HR departments, but what is unusual about long Covid is its unpredictability, its range of symptoms and its capacity to affect people in very different ways. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath and fatigue, muscle aches, nausea, depression, bouts of fever, confusion and loss of concentration. Some employees may work normally for long periods and then suddenly experience a flare-up. Others will have persistent low-level effects that undermine morale and long-term performance – and if the REACT study findings are accurate, in a large organisation that could impact a significant proportion of the workforce.

This means that when the government’s furlough scheme ends in September, the majority of people with long Covid will be able to work, but many others may be on long-term sick leave. The requirements of some jobs may allow sufferers to continue working, while other more physically demanding roles could be impossible when symptoms flare up. HR departments should be prepared to receive many short-notice calls from employees with long Covid saying their symptoms have worsened overnight and they are unable to work.

The challenge for HR is how to nurture employees with this little-understood illness and optimise their performance.

However delicate the situation, organisations shouldn’t be passive in how they respond. They need to actively manage employees with the illness, engaging with them on a regular basis, thinking creatively to adjust tasks where possible, so that the necessary work is completed.

While organisations need to be offering degrees of flexibility, unfortunately guidance is in short supply. The medical profession is still exploring long Covid, so firm recommendations will be hard to come by for some time. There are broader considerations relating to employment law, too. The REACT study suggests women and older employees are more susceptible to long Covid, while other studies have pointed to higher rates of symptomatic illness in ethnic minority communities. Employers need to be alert to the dangers of indirect discrimination on grounds of age, gender and race.

The lack of understanding and clarity around long Covid means there is ample potential for friction between employer and employee. Employment lawyers, for example, are not certain whether long Covid symptoms qualify as a disability under the Equalities Act, with “substantial and long-term adverse effect on ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. The first Employment Tribunal rulings may help determine this question. In the meantime, HR departments need to ensure they manage employees with the condition sympathetically.

Employers should show they have taken individual circumstances into account and provide easy access to employee assistance programmes if they have them. Employers also need to consider how to accommodate employees with partners or other immediate family members who are long Covid sufferers. This is a delicate area, but it’s certainly worth having appropriate policies in place. Situations will arise where an employee suddenly has to take on more care responsibilities which affect their hours of work.

In fact, in the few weeks remaining until the end of furlough, organisations should conduct a thorough update of their codes and policies to be ready for the return of employees with long Covid. Since the condition is little understood and still evolving, it’s hugely important for HR departments to maintain up-to-date knowledge of long Covid, any legal ramifications and to be fully aware of changes in official guidelines.

The importance of staying connected with sufferers

Managers should also maintain contact with employees who have been signed off with the illness. Once an absence exceeds four weeks, it’s considered long-term. It’s important to keep up a dialogue with the employee, since it is harder to bring someone back into full-time work when they have been on long-term sick leave. They can also sometimes feel their employer has overlooked them. Managers should agree with the employee what degree of contact they should maintain during that time, with the details logged on HR systems for reference. We know that regular, informal conversations tend to be much more effective than intermittent emails. They’re also far more personal.

This kind of frequent, informal connectivity with a workforce, especially if people are working from home, is much easier if organisations utilise the right type of technology. Technology should be an enabler, not a blocker, to employee check-ins.

Although workplaces will gradually return to a semblance of normality after the pandemic, people managers and HR departments will have to navigate the complications of long Covid carefully. A lax approach towards caring for employees with the condition could have serious consequences. With the right technology at their disposal, HR professionals find it much easier to manage long Covid.