As we know over the past 14 months individuals who had (or will get) COVID have varying reactions to the infection. For the majority of people it is a short term illness with no lasting symptoms, while unfortunately for others the outcome of having contracted COVID has led to what is known as ‘long COVID’, ‘post-COVID-19 syndrome’ or ‘long-tail COVID’.
ACAS last week has published guidance on whether these conditions are classed as a disability, and how employers should be dealing with employees who may fall within this category.
Long COVID symptoms could affect someone’s ability to work or cause them to take sickness absence.
The usual rules for sickness absence and sick pay apply when someone is off work because of long COVID.
How long it takes to recover from COVID-19 is different for everybody. The chances of having long-term symptoms does not seem to be linked to how ill an individual is/was when they first get COVID-19.
People who had mild symptoms at first can still have long-term problems.
Symptoms of long COVID
There are lots of symptoms you can have after a COVID-19 infection, and common symptoms include:
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or tightness
- problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- heart palpitations
- pins and needles
- joint pain
- depression and anxiety
- tinnitus, earaches
- feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
- a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
What the employer should do
Employers should be aware that the effects of long COVID can come and go. On some days the person might seem well, but on others their symptoms can be worse, and they might need to be off work again.
If someone is off sick, they might feel isolated or need support to return to work. Employers should:
- agree how and when to make contact during any absence
- make sure their work is covered and shared out appropriately while they’re off
- talk about ways to support them as they return to work where and when possible
When the employee feels able to return to work
The employer should talk with the employee about any support they may need. They could discuss:
- getting an occupational health assessment
- making changes to the workplace or to how the employee works (‘reasonable adjustments’), such as different working hours
- a phased return to work
- what they want to tell others at work about their illness
Example of making a reasonable adjustment
Bo has had severe tiredness and body aches since having COVID-19 a few weeks ago. Their doctor has diagnosed long COVID. Bo is ready to come back to work but is worried that working full time will be hard.
Bo’s employer looks at the workload and can allocate some work to others in the team. This means they can offer Bo part-time hours to start their return to work. They put in a date to review the arrangement.
If an employee is struggling to do their job
If an employer feels the employee is not able to do their work or is taking a lot of absence, they should see if they can do anything to help. For example, a further occupational health assessment to find out if more support is needed.
What employers must do
Employers should make sure they have done everything before considering a capability procedure. If an employer dismisses an employee without first carrying out a full and fair disciplinary or capability procedure, the employee could make a claim of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal.
Helping an employee who has long COVID
The NHS has a link that you could share with employees who have had long COVID so that they are able to find the support that is being provided. It is quite a scary time for many who may have long term lasting effects. In addition, employees should also seek assistance help and support from their own GP.
Is long COVID classed as a Disability?
Under the law, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial and long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities.
‘Long term’ means the impairment:
- has lasted or will last for at least 12 months
- can come and go or is likely to last for the rest of the person’s life
Long COVID is still a new illness and it may take time to understand it fully. It can affect a person’s day-to-day activities and it’s currently understood that it can last or come and go for several months. The effects of long COVID could also cause other impairments.
It’s a good idea for the employer to focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make rather than trying to work out if an employee’s condition is a disability.
As well as disability, employers must be careful to avoid other types of discrimination when considering long COVID. Employers must also avoid discriminating by age, disability, race or sex.
Long COVID has been found to severely affect more;
- older people
- ethnic minorities
The HR team at Black Mountain are as always available to discuss any employee and concerns or questions you may have in relation to COVID and its long-term impact on employees.