A number of Covid-19 vaccines provide good reason to be cheerful but, even once these have been administered and infection rates have hopefully plummeted, the health crisis won’t be completely over.
One particular lingering issue will be the many people who continue to suffer from ‘Long Covid’ – defined as ‘signs and symptoms that develop during or following an infection consistent with Covid-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.’¹
Depending on which survey you read, sufferers already number anything between 60,000 and 500,000.² Profound fatigue is the most commonly-cited symptom, but others include everything from breathlessness, coughing, chest heaviness and aching to fever, headaches, skin rashes, diarrhoea and pins and needles.
We don’t yet know how long the disease can last for but sufferers – who are around twice as likely to be women as men³ – commonly report it to be of a relapsing nature, involving good and bad days. We also know that there can be emotional as well as physical repercussions, resulting in problems like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Data and knowledge about Long Covid is still in a somewhat embryonic state and the picture may prove constantly changing, but the key message for employers is to be on the lookout for employees suffering from it and to be offering them appropriate support.
Failure to do so could damage employee morale and engagement and could even leave employers on the wrong end of employment tribunal decisions. ² So, consideration of Long Covid needs to be an integral part of health and wellbeing programmes.
The condition, which can occur regardless of age and underlying health conditions, affects different employees in very different ways. Some are unable to work at all and have issues with mobility whilst others are on reduced hours or have agreed with employers to make phased returns. Another category of sufferer is still turning up to work full-time but unable to function at their maximum – leading to ‘presenteeism’ costs.
So, as with other long-term debilitating conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and ME, Long Covid should be addressed on a case-by-case by basis, with affected employees being encouraged to learn how to recognise and avoid the triggers likely to bring it on.
Companies with in-house occupational health departments, or who buy into external occupational health services, are well placed in this respect, but a range of health-related employee benefits and their added-value services can also prove important tools.
For example, if an employer has a group income protection scheme it will provide those unable to work with a regular income once the initial deferred period – typically either three or six months – has elapsed.
Additionally, group income protection schemes include important rehabilitation services to help assess sick employees and facilitate their return to work, arranging necessary treatment and advising on any adjustments needed to the workplace.
Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are also commonly available on group income protection, life cover and private medical insurance (PMI) schemes. These can be of great help when Long Covid has any kind of mental health impact as they are able to provide free and confidential 24/7 counselling, and they have a good record of preventing stress and anxiety problems from developing into full-blown absenteeism issues.
Because awareness of Long Covid amongst the public is still very low, simply the ability for patients to be listened to and empathised with – and informed that they are suffering from an increasingly well recognised syndrome as opposed to being ‘the only one’ – can be all-important.
Group risk providers will be keeping their finger on the pulse as more empirical data emerges and understanding of Long Covid increases. But employers should also follow developments in the press.
In particular the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) are working with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to develop a guideline for managing Long Covid, and publication of this is expected by the end of this year. *
¹ NICE defines ‘long Covid’ as symptoms lasting more than 12 weeks Nursing Times
² www.peoplemanagement.co.uk & www.thetimes.co.uk
Content correct at the time of writing and is intended for general information only and should not be construed as advice.