How Can You Support Employees as We Learn to Live With Covid?

by | Apr 5, 2022 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

Even a couple of years on, the pandemic continues to shape the workplace and the importance of occupational health.

One area that is receiving increased attention from occupational health professionals is long Covid – symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, and neurocognitive impairment – and the necessity to consider how these symptoms may impact an employee’s way of working.

There is also the impact of new ways of working and recent changes around government guidelines regarding self-isolation (the removal of the requirement to self-isolate for 7-10 days) that will shift the focus of occupational health professionals.

How can employees be supported at such a pivotal time for occupational health? 

The current outlook

Recent research from CIPD found that almost half of organisations have employees who have experienced long Covid in the past 12 months, with a quarter now including it as one of their main causes of long-term sickness absence.

Alongside this, more businesses are beginning to consider their current employee benefit offerings and how well they truly cover the scope of employee mental health and wellbeing.

The lifting of rules around self-isolation have also led clinicians from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London to encourage organisations to implement policies to encourage self-isolation to reduce the risks posed for those with severe health complications.

The primary aim of this is to encourage organisations to implement fair pay so that those who may be more vulnerable to illness from Covid can stay at home without having to wait for the current requirement of the fourth day of their illness to claim statutory sick pay (which may encourage employees to come into the workplace whilst ill).

This would be dependent upon organisations creating their own policies – something which would be best guided by occupational health professionals. 

Supporting employees with long Covid

By the summer of 2021, around 2 million people in the UK were experiencing the debilitating symptoms of long Covid, yet even now, support for employees returning to work and the processes necessary to enable this seem sparse.

Given that the symptoms of long Covid cause multimorbidity (different symptoms in the same person) and differs so significantly person-to-person, it is challenging attempting to consider how to approach it.

Occupational health providers may be finding that workers have limited support and advice when returning to work after an absence, alongside the fact that their health problems and symptoms have not been adequately addressed.

Rather than simply focusing on one area of support, such as implementing flexible working (which many organisations will already implement) it is important to cover a full scope of support – GP appointments, physiotherapy, mental health support, occupational health guidance – in order to assist employees suffering with long Covid.

Occupational health guidance is essential in making any reasonable adjustments that can make an employee’s return to work smoother, whether this pertains to re-deploying the individual to a more suitable position or adjusting their current work routine – employers will have to begin re-considering their approach to reasonable adjustments. 

Treating long Covid as a disability

There has been discourse recently around whether employees with long Covid should be treated by employers as if they have a disability as it relates to equality law.

Though long Covid has not been around long enough for it to qualify as a long-term impairment yet (this may be subject to change with a potential case law that may consider long-Covid as part of the EQA), many occupational health professionals, people professionals, and bodies including the TUC are recommending that long Covid be treated in the same way as a disability.

Conditions recognised as a disability under the Equality Act have to be considered ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ (unless it is one of the disabilities such as cancer that sit outside of this bracket).

With many of the symptoms of long Covid significantly impacting an employee’s ability to work, there certainly is a necessity to consider the seriousness of the condition in relation to the workplace.

 Wider workplace implications

The way in which occupational health professionals operate is changing to match the evolution of the workplace and employee needs.

For example, risk assessments could be set to change to begin covering elements of an employee’s lifestyle that may be classed as risk factors, which requires a consideration as to how responsible an employer is for their employee’s health in and outside of work.

(With so much changing in the workplace as to how mental health and wellbeing are viewed, it is likely that employer attitudes are shifting towards greater responsibility.)

Health inequality has also been highlighted by the pandemic, at a time when many of those who were most at risk (e.g., healthcare workers) had the least access to healthcare benefits.

Occupational health professionals will be met with the challenges and opportunities of the changes brought by the pandemic, and importantly, the necessity to shift the scope of occupational health as workforce needs have evolved. 

Even now, the changes brought by the pandemic are continuing to extend and evolve as our response to the pandemic does.

Occupational health professionals are integral in the way that workplaces will not only recover, but also adapt to the future and all of the issues that arise.




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