Working with Long COVID

It is nearly two years since the first COVID-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom and for many people, working with Long COVID has become an unfortunate daily reality.

What is Long COVID?

Long COVID is the name given to a condition in which the effects of COVID-19 continue for a prolonged period.  It can affect the whole body and the symptoms can change or come and go over time.

What are the symptoms of Long COVID?

According to the NHS, the symptoms may include the following: –

  • Extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • Inability to remember and concentrate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach aches, loss of appetite and nausea
  • Joint pain
  • Pins and needles
  • Heart palpitations
  • Depression and anxiety

Those who suffer from Long COVID may often feel exhausted and unable to work at all. Furthermore, the symptoms may be intermittent which means employees may be well enough to work and then take sporadic sick leave.

Long COVID is undoubtedly having an impact on sickness absences from work. In fact, a recent Office of National Statistics survey during October 2021 found that approximately 1.2 million people were experiencing the effects of Long COVID. Evidence also shows that those from ethnic minority communities, the  elderly and women are disproportionately affected. Since Long COVID is a new condition, the question remains as to whether it will eventually be recognised as a disability.

What are the implications of working with Long COVID?

We need to consider how employers should manage sickness absences related to Long COVID. If it has lasted more than a year, it can be said to be a disability for which reasonable adjustments will need to be made. Employers should be mindful of not discriminating against employees with this condition. It is important to deal effectively and empathically with staff who are absent as a result of Long COVID.

Sickness absences will need to be managed with care and consideration, and employers will need to follow a fair and transparent process to avoid any claims for unfair dismissal. Disability discrimination claims could also pose a potential risk in cases where the condition has lasted for more than a year.

ACAS advises that employers should come to an agreement with employees regarding how regularly they should be contacted during the time of their absence on Long COVID sick leave.  An understanding should also be reached as to how the workload of absent employees should be distributed amongst other staff. In addition to this, employers should consider and discuss how they will support employees as they return to work. Further advice from ACAS can be found here:  https://www.acas.org.uk/long-covid.

There may come a stage when an occupational health assessment and report is required in order to consider the nature of the symptoms and the consequent fitness for work, as this will obviously influence whether an employee needs further support.  It is the duty of the employer to make reasonable adjustments, such as allocating lighter duties to the affected person, or establishing if dismissal on capability for ill health is a legally fair dismissal.

Considerations on the return to work after Long COVID

It is helpful to speak with employees in advance of any return to work to ensure any concerns, such as how other staff may treat them or how they will be reintegrated back into the team, are dealt with.

At the point of the return to work, employers should have a procedure in place to assist employees to ease back into the work routine. A suggested example is a phased return with shorter working hours for the initial period.

ACAS guidance includes the following: –

  • Make sure the employee is ready to return to work;
  • Review any recommendations from the employee’s doctor;
  • Consider if any support is required;
  • If the employee has a disability, consider if adjustments are needed in the workplace to remove or reduce any disadvantages;
  • Consider a referral to a medical service such as occupational health;
  • Discuss an employee assistance programme if it’s available; and
  • Agree on a plan that suits you both, for example a phased return to work.

If it is necessary to dismiss an employee because the person is absent for long periods or is no longer able to do the job due to Long COVID, employers will need to ensure they follow a fair capability process. This will include consideration of current medical evidence and any reasonable adjustments that could be made to help the employee to return to work, such as the availability of any suitable alternative roles.

Feel free to contact our solicitors for any further advice you may need on how Long COVID could affect your work environment.

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