While for the fortunate majority COVID-19 is a relatively short-lived and mild illness, for others it can be a very serious and sadly sometimes fatal disease. For some, the virus can cause symptoms that last weeks or months after the infection. This ‘long COVID’ could hugely impact someone's ability to work or cause them to take prolonged periods of sickness absence.
A recent study from React-2, found that more than 2 million adults in England have experienced coronavirus symptoms lasting over 12 weeks.
The study found that people with ongoing symptoms tended to fall into two categories: those with respiratory symptoms and those with fatigue-related symptoms. It also found that women were more commonly affected and that the risk of ongoing symptoms increased with age.
Long COVID is of course a fairly new issue and much is still being learnt about it. However, it is likely that more and more employers will need to find ways to support employees who are suffering from long COVID.
How employers can help
There doesn’t seem to be one set of symptoms or experiences for long COVID and it can come and go, meaning that an employee may be well enough to work on one day, but then needing to take time off the next.
The usual rules for sickness absence and pay apply when someone is off work because of long COVID.
If someone is off with long COVID, they might feel isolated or need support to return to work. It is a good idea to keep in touch with employees who are absent (in an appropriate way) to talk about ways to support them when they feel able to return to work.
These could include:
- An assessment from occupational health
- Making reasonable adjustments to the workplace or to how the employee works i.e. altering working hours
- A phased return to work
If the employee is still not able to do their work or is taking a lot of absence, then the first step should be to see if there is any additional support that can be put in place to help. Employers should ensure they have done everything they can before carrying out a capability procedure.
Employers also need to be very mindful of avoiding any type of discrimination when dealing with long COVID cases. It could be argued that long COVID should be viewed 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 specifically means that either the condition has lasted for more than 12 months or is expected to do. So this test is more focused on symptoms than it is labels.
However, avoiding discriminating by disability is not the only area employers should be mindful of. Studies show that Long COVID disproportionally impacts women, ethnic minorities and older people. As such, employers need to be careful not to discriminate based on age, race or sex.
If you have any questions about how best to support employees with long COVID or how to avoid discriminating against employees with this illness, then please get in touch with our team of expert employment lawyers email@example.com