As the nation moves towards restriction-free living, we are starting to see the lasting effects of the global pandemic emerging in the workplace. A push for flexible working for all and increased awareness of employee mental wellbeing are two such examples. But how much do you know about “Long Covid” and how should you treat employees who have it?
NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has defined “post-Covid syndrome” commonly known as “Long Covid” as COVID-19 consistent symptoms which continue for more than 12 weeks and which are not explained by an alternative diagnosis. The NHS lists a number of common Long Covid symptoms online, including extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration (commonly known as “brain fog”) as well as depression and anxiety.
The ONS estimates that over 1 million people in Britain have suffered, or are currently suffering, from Long Covid. Acas recently released some short guidance on Long Covid that encourages employers to treat Long Covid like any other illness and apply their usual rules in relation to sickness absence.
Under the Equality Act 2010, a mental or physical impairment is a disability if it has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day- to- day activities, understood to be 12 months or more. With Long Covid being relatively new, there is still much medical and scientific uncertainty about the condition, its causes, treatment, the symptoms and how long it could last. It also seems to affects different people in different ways. So, employers should treat each affected employee on an individual basis.
Some affected employees may fall under the disability definition and some may not, depending on their symptoms and the length of time they have been, or could, be, affected. Each affected employee may therefore have different needs and require different reasonable adjustments.
In the interests of maintaining positive employee relations and proactive risk management, it may be prudent for employers to treat all Long Covid cases as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Employers should regularly check in with employees to understand their symptoms and be innovative and flexible in supporting their needs.
Employers should review and apply (or implement) their normal sickness, absence management, return to work, equal opportunities and performance/capability rules and procedures. HR and line managers should be informed about what Long Covid is and how to manage affected employees properly and fairly in line with company procedures.
Be cautious not to assume the role of a medical professional when making decisions about affected employees. Employers should follow the scientific and medical advice as it emerges and refer affected employees to occupational health where further information is needed.