“Long COVID” is often a term used to describe the long-lasting impact that COVID-19 can have on a person, many months after they first contract the virus. 

Long COVID is still a condition which is being carefully studied and monitored. Appearing at least a month after the onset of the illness, long COVID can include an array of symptoms which can drastically impact a person’s quality of life including extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, problems with memory and a high temperature.

According to recent data from the Office for National Statistics, almost 1.1 million people reported experiencing long COVID in the month leading up to March 2021.

Within this group, 674,000 people stated long COVID symptoms were adversely affecting their day-to-day activities. Additionally, a further 196,000 people said that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been limited “a lot”.

As such, for people who are suffering from long COVID and are currently employed, HR will need to identify areas in which these workers can be supported and accommodated for.

Adrian Lewis, Managing Director of Activ Absence, an absence management software, said:

The symptoms of Long Covid can impact someone’s return to work and ability to function properly once back, depending on the severity. This is something that employers need to have on their radar so they can recognise if someone is struggling and ensure they have policies in place to support them.

We anticipate most employees will want to get back to work quickly after Covid-19 but could end up coming back too soon. This could lead to a rise in presenteeism, which over time could result in someone taking time off sick as they make themselves worse. Over the longer term, businesses could start seeing rising absenteeism which can be costly.

According to research conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), ill health and work-related injury cost Great Britain £16.2 billion between 2019-2020. This was the equivalent of losing 38.8 million working days, showing the importance of supporting employee wellbeing.

Adrian Lewis continued, emphasising the importance of being flexible with policies and adapting as the situation progresses:

It is early days to know for sure how Covid-19 is going to impact people in the future, but studies are beginning to show that some are adversely affected for a long time. Employers need to be mindful of this and adapt work policies accordingly.

Offering phased returns to work and flexible or reduced hours, for instance, could help employees get back to work by helping to manage symptoms such as fatigue. Also having robust systems in place for monitoring staff absence can help prevent a rise in absenteeism.

The CIPD also discussed this topic during a recent webinar. Dr. Jo Yarker stressed the necessity of supporting employees with long-COVID in “all manner of ways” who may return to work environments that are “depleted and struggling”.

In order to do this, the CIPD outlined several steps HR should take:

  1. Getting the key principles right – Talking to employees, having a return to work conversation, allowing employees to take one step at a time when they do return and monitoring and reviewing the employee to ensure they are given the correct support.
  2. Equipping the managers to support returners and manage blended working – Training line managers in how they can prevent and reduce stress and using compassionate systems which accommodate for employees who have fluctuating conditions.
  3. Supporting work adjustments to enable returners to manage work and health – This could involve adapting work schedules to offer the employee more breaks, reviewing their workload, offering additional leave or providing the worker with a buddy or a mentor.