I know it is a very much overused word, but I think we can all agree that many of the events of 2020 were “unprecedented”. In addition, it is now becoming apparent that the impact and effect of the pandemic will last well into 2021 and beyond. We are all on a very steep learning curve and what we currently think might be the new normal is likely to change significantly as science discovers more about COVID-19 and works on ways to deal with it.
One issue which employers will need to consider is how they adapt to deal with employees who are suffering with long-term health issues as a result of COVID-19; “Long Covid”. We are still finding out exactly what this condition entails but lasting symptoms of coronavirus can include: fatigue, breathlessness, anxiety and depression, palpitations, chest pains, joint or muscle pain and “brain fog” - not being able to think straight or focus. These issues will have implications in respect of sickness absence and presenteeism in the workplace. Employers are likely to need new ways of managing employees with Long Covid, not only when they are absent through illness but when they return to work.
Like COVID-19, Long Covid is a new medical condition and employers will need to treat suffers in the same way they deal with any other medical/health issue in the workforce. Medical issues tend to differ from person to person so a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not useful. Employers will need to talk to affected individuals and discuss how Long Covid is impacting them before working on support that is needed to help the employee to remain at and/or return to work.
At this stage it is too early to tell if Long Covid will be treated as a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. A key factor in the definition is that the condition needs to be long-term, lasting more than 12 months. However, the significant adverse effect Long Covid has on a person’s ability to carry out day to day activities, means is it likely that it will be considered a disability. In any event, employers should look at providing support and reasonable adjustments to help employees deal with the condition while remaining productive workers. Also, bear in mind that Long Covid isn’t uncommon, the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) latest report shows that one in 10 people who tested positive for Covid-19 still had symptoms 12 weeks later ¹.
The employee benefits world has been quick to respond to this problem. Several Group Income Protection providers are now communicating what support they can provide to suffers via their wellbeing programmes. These resources vary from provider to provider but in general are designed to help employees with both physical and mental health issues and can include on-line information, virtual GP services, 1-to-1 coaching and advice, second opinions, rehabilitation and EAPs. Additional support will also be provided by Health Cash Plans and Private Medical Insurers.
Long Covid is already affecting the workforce in the UK and will do for some time to come. Employers should take stock of their existing benefits to assess what support is available and ensure that employees are fully aware of how to access help. Without effective communication these services - and how they can help employees - will often be missed, with significant impact on employee wellbeing and business productivity.