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18th May, 2022

Amy Davis
Amy Davis
Job Title
Head of Content

Research by the Office for National Statistics in January 2022 revealed that an estimated 1.3 million people living in private households in the UK – two percent of the population – were experiencing self-reported long Covid symptoms. This number is only likely to increase as we continue to battle through the pandemic.

With these figures in mind, it’s likely some of your staff members are suffering from the symptoms of long Covid and need your support.

What are the symptoms of long Covid?

Depending on how long the symptoms last, the NHS ‘Your Covid Recovery’ website highlights that there are two categories people experiencing long Covid will fall under:

Ongoing symptomatic Covid: in this case, symptoms continue for more than four weeks but less than 12 weeks; or

Post-Covid Syndrome: symptoms carry on for longer than 12 weeks and are not directly related to any other condition.

There are many ‘standard’ symptoms related to long Covid. These include, but aren’t limited to, fatigue, fever, pain, cough, chest tightness, chest pain, palpitations, memory issues, headaches, depression and anxiety. A full list of symptoms can be found here.

You need to be aware that when it comes to long Covid, symptoms can come and go – this is important, as one week a member of your team may need time off work, and another week they may feel a lot brighter and able to work. As well as coming and going, symptoms may also worsen and get better.

How can you help as a manager?

There are several ways you can help support your team members who are suffering from long Covid, but the level of support you can offer will depend on whether they are currently working or not.

Supporting those absent from work

If they are suffering badly, your employee may have a fit note from their GP which suggests they are unable to work. In the case of long-term sickness absence, you are limited, but you can still offer them a helping hand while they are out of the workplace.

As a line manager, you should be understanding of your team member’s illness. They are likely to be going through a really worrying time and you should be mindful of not adding to these concerns.

Keep in regular contact with your team member during their absence. This could be simply dropping them a WhatsApp message, giving them a call, or writing an email - but be sure to have agreed their preferred method of contact, and how regularly they would like you to stay in touch, before doing this. It’s important they don’t feel isolated – remember it’s not their fault they aren’t able to attend work – so keeping them in the loop about what is happening is a good way of doing this.

Ensure your team member is aware of your company’s sickness absence policy/procedures and are fully up to date with this information – it will give them peace of mind to know what they can expect from you as an employer.

You could also signpost your team members to external or internal support services that your company offers, including:

  • Counselling services

  • Wellbeing support

  • Financial wellbeing advice

  • Rehabilitation services

And remember, when it comes to sickness absence and sick pay, the standard rules apply for long Covid as with other illnesses. Therefore, it’s important your team member provides regular fit notes so that they continue to receive any entitlements.

Supporting employees who are ready to return to the workplace

As mentioned, the symptoms of long Covid can be unpredictable. It’s therefore important to know that, regardless of whether an employee is ready to return to work, they may have ongoing health issues, or their symptoms may reoccur. This may cause more absences and/or mean reasonable adjustments are needed.

Before returning to work, in some cases, your team member may have been asked to return to their doctor to assess whether they are ready. It is worth noting that in most cases, while a fit note is needed to be signed off from work, it isn’t needed to return to work. Most fit notes will have an end date outlined.

That being said, it’s important team members who have long Covid do not return to the workplace too early, as this could exacerbate their ill-health. If your team member is sure they are ready, it’s advisable to send them to an occupational health practitioner to assess their needs and ensure they can return to work safely.

The occupational health practitioner will provide advice and recommendations suited to each individual, but these may include:

  • Assessing whether your member of staff is well enough to return to work, or whether they should still be signed off

  • Suggesting your employee have a phased return to work – offering reduced hours to ensure they can cope and are not going to be too tired

  • Giving the employee the opportunity, where possible, to work from home if needed

  • Recommending lighter duties, or a change of duties, if their normal role could be too strenuous – both mentally and physically

From this assessment, as a manager, you’ll not only be able to learn how you can support your staff who are suffering from long Covid, but how to best assist them to ensure the transition back into the workplace is as smooth as possible. It will also allow you to assess how your employee’s return to work may impact members of your wider team.

If you don’t have access to an occupational health team internally, there are many external organisations that offer this service.

Alternatively, if you decide not to use an occupational health practitioner, and deal with your employee’s return yourself, you may want to consider:

  1. Sitting down and talking with your employee, in order to understand their needs, any anxieties they may have about returning to work, and how they feel you can best support their return

  2. Whether you can offer the returning member of staff less physically or emotionally demanding tasks

  3. Offering shorter working hours, or even longer break times, to allow your returning employee to adjust to being back in the workplace

  4. Considering a phased return to make sure they are genuinely prepared to come back to their normal working pattern

  5. Whether the role could possibly be done from home – flexibility is key and commuting long distances into work may also have an impact on your team member’s health

Things to remember when it comes to long Covid

Covid-19 is still a very new virus. It’s only been a little over two years since the pandemic took hold, which doesn’t really allow us to assess the full picture of the effects of long Covid.

There has been much debate among theorists, employment lawyers and experts as to whether long Covid should be treated as a disability under the Equality Act – but as yet, nothing has been clarified. Acas suggests that “Employers should focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make rather than trying to work out if an employee's condition is a disability.”

What’s important as a manager of someone with long Covid, is that you recognise and acknowledge the condition and ensure you support your employee’s return to your workplace – safely and confidently.

Any return-to-work arrangement you make with your team member needs to be under constant review. If symptoms worsen, then you will need to adjust the arrangement accordingly. Similarly, if they seem to be feeling better, then you may want to discuss the next steps to a full return to previous duties.

One thing is for certain, you should be mindful of your approach and understanding, and make reasonable adjustments wherever possible.

If you would like some information to support your team members working from home because of long Covid, download our free guide to remote working here.