The effects of long-COVID are still in the process of being understood by scientists. However, a law firm has stated that this long-standing illness could be classified as a disability which businesses should be mindful of.

Long-COVID is a term used to describe the persistent symptoms that employees face at least a month after initially contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Symptoms can include chest pain, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, memory problems and a high temperature. It is important to note that these symptoms can vary in severity day-to-day, much like a chronic illness.

Latest figures show that over one million people reported experiencing long-COVID in the month leading up to March 2021. In addition, further data suggested that one in five sufferers may need up to six months off to recover from the condition.

As such, Ella Bond, from Harper James Solicitors, has warned that it is vital for employers to be ready for the possible impact long-COVID could have on both their employees and their business.

Ms. Bond said:

Employers should treat the illness as they would any other condition and assess the impact on each employee on a case-by-case basis. While it is still too early to gauge how long some employees may suffer from the illness, employers should keep in mind that it is possible long-COVID could meet the definition of being a disability.

The decision on whether long-COVID is classified as a disability depends on the “severity, effects and how long a medical practitioner assesses that it has or could last for”, Ms. Bond states. It could also lead to the exacerbation of other conditions or cause mental health issues such as depression or PTSD.

Ms. Bond claims that all these factors should be “kept front and centre of an employer’s mind when dealing with the issue”. If this is not handled correctly, employers could be falling foul of discrimination legislation.

It is evident that these issues will have a substantial impact on the employee at hand and the business as a whole, with long COVID estimated to cost the UK workforce around £2.5bn a year.

In light of this, the law firm has given HR advice on how they can handle this situation including:

  • Updating the company’s absence management policy
  • Including clear guidance on what payments are provided to employees during sickness absence, together with the detail on management and support measures.
  • Offering appropriate training for managers linked to the company’s absence management policies and procedures.
  • Keeping records of the dates and reasons for employees’ absence.
  • Holding absence reviews and return to work meetings with employees to open up discussions and, again, assess what support may be required.
  • Considering what adjustments could be introduced to support an employee with long COVID. Adjustments could include a phased return to work, flexible working or working reduced hours to help with symptoms such as fatigue.
  • Listen to and support employees. A compassionate approach could encourage employees to return to the workplace as well as facilitating open communications and positive employee relations.

*This research and advice was obtained from Harper James Solicitors, a commercial law firm.