As long COVID has recently been ruled as a disability, we consider the implications for your workplace sickness management processes.
Although we are approaching two and a half years since the pandemic hit the UK and living and working with COVID has become routine and common-place, long COVID remains a relatively new condition, with its effects still being properly researched. For employers this is likely to be a cause for concern, given the potential impact on the workforce.
In research conducted by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth at the beginning of 2022, 46% of surveyed organisations had employees who have experienced long COVID in the last 12 months. Whilst this number will continue to fluctuate, it is potentially a significant number of employees who will be trying to work whilst coping with long COVID symptoms.
There is an expectation that more long COVID cases will come to tribunals, following the recent preliminary ruling in a Scottish tribunal case that long COVID did meet the definition of disability.
What Is long COVID?
It is described as the persistence or development of symptoms attributed to COVID-19, lasting more than twelve weeks after initial infection.
Common symptoms include:
- extreme tiredness, difficulty sleeping
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or tightness, heart palpitations
- problems with memory and concentration
- joint pain, pins and needles
- depression and anxiety
- tinnitus, earaches
- nausea, stomach aches diarrhoea
- loss of appetite
- a high temperature
- cough, sore throat
- changes to sense of smell or taste
People can experience the effects of long COVID for weeks, months and even years. Symptoms can come and go over time, sometimes getting better and sometimes getting worse. This means it can affect someone’s ability to work and/or cause them to have higher rates of absence.
With the potential to last beyond twelve months and to have an adverse effect on day-to-day activities, this is where the question of disability comes in. Long COVID has been found to more severely affect older people, ethnic minorities and women.
Effective Steps for Employers
With inconsistent performance and increasing absence, it’s easy to see how an escalation to capability processes could happen for an employee suffering with long COVID.
As with any complex sickness issue, it’s important to seek expert medical advice before rushing into a management decision. This is where an occupational health referral can really help but ensure that you ask the right questions:
- Is there an underlying medical condition?
- How might it affect the individual’s performance of their duties?
- What reasonable adjustments could be made in the short or long term?
- Whether or not the individual is likely to be covered by the Equality Act?
For this last question, the advice may not always be conclusive but the focus here should not be on determining whether an employee’s condition is a disability, but on getting them back to working at their best. This is where the reasonable adjustments – such as changes to hours and responsibilities, place of work – can really help.
An Individual Response
With individuals being affected in different ways by a vast array of possibly fluctuating symptoms, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to absence management is unlikely to be possible. It’s therefore important to look at each case individually.
As well as considering and discussing any occupational health recommendations, employers should engage with individuals directly to understand what support they need during any absence and in their return.
Ensure regular meetings – both during their absence and once they return to work – to provide an opportunity for them to raise any concerns they may have. Checking in regularly upon their return will not only provide positive dialogue and focus on their wellbeing but will also allow you to table any concerns re. workload and productivity early. Along with any adjustments this will demonstrate the support put in place by an employer.
What Else Can Employers Do?
Review existing absence management policies for employees with long term health conditions to ensure these are flexible to respond appropriately. Policies provide guidance but it may be necessary to tailor these to individual situations, for example considering the viability to revise absence thresholds.
Utilise occupational health assessments as appropriate to discuss how and when an employee can return and what reasonable adjustments can be put in place to support their return, such as hybrid working, flexible hours, adjustment to responsibilities.
Consider refresher training for line managers on absence management processes, in particular the use of occupational health referrals. Don’t assume your managers are confident in dealing with these situations as some may have had little or no experience of them and may be anxious about getting it right.
Similarly, you might want to provide awareness training for managers to increase their understanding of long COVID and its potential impact on employees and linking this up with absence management processes.
The number of people experiencing ongoing symptoms following a COVID-19 infection will likely increase over the coming months and years, and with that a possible increase in unfair dismissal claims. The argument for proactively supporting individuals to return to, and remain at, work is therefore strong.
How employers deal with such cases could impact not only dismissal claims, productivity, recruitment and training costs of replacing exiting employees but also employee engagement. With competition fierce for skilled employees, employers who demonstrate supportive and positive management of employee wellbeing, including long COVID, will have a better chance of managing turnover and retaining employees.