Just when you think the mind field of Furlough has ended, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how workplaces respond to sickness and other forms of absence in a variety of ways. Which is another mind field in itself.

By the end of this blog, I will guide you through how your organisation handles long-term absence with the rise of the syndrome called long COVID.

What is it Long Covid?

Long Covid can have a lasting impact on an employee’s health and wellbeing and can last weeks or even months after the infection has gone.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that over one million people have reported experiencing long Covid,

The recovery from long COVID-19 is of course different for everybody.

Many people feel better in a few days or weeks, and most will make a full recovery within 12 weeks. But for some people, symptoms can last longer.

The chances of having long-term symptoms does not seem to be linked to how ill you are when you first get COVID-19.

People who had mild symptoms at first can still have long-term problems.

What are the symptoms?

There are lots of symptoms you can have after a COVID-19 infection.

Common long COVID symptoms include:

  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • heart palpitations
  • dizziness
  • pins and needles
  • joint pain
  • depression and anxiety
  • tinnitus, earaches
  • feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
  • a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
  • rashes

I mean the list is endless.

The legal issues to consider in relation to long-term absence and disability discrimination  

Long Covid is a relatively new illness and for some people it can be debilitating. For others, its effects are variable, and a worker could be fine one day but need to be off work if their symptoms worsen. As it is a new condition and not enough data to analyse it is still unclear if Long COVID would be classed as a disability.

By law, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘long-term and substantial adverse effect’ on a person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities.

‘Long term’ means either:

  • it will affect them or is likely to affect them for at least a year
  • it’s likely to last for the rest of their life

‘Substantial adverse effect’ means more than just a minor impact on someone’s life or how they can do certain things. This may fluctuate or change and may not happen all the time.

As well as disability, employers must be careful to avoid other types of discrimination when considering long COVID.

Long COVID has been found to affect more severely:

  • older people
  • ethnic minorities
  • women

Employers must avoid discriminating by age, disability, race or sex.

Long covid should be treated the same as a long-term sickness and manage the various effects of the condition in a sensitive way as well a range of options that can help staff get back to work safely.

What kind of reasonable adjustments can be made for staff absent with Long Covid?

My suggestions for employers would be:

  • arrange and offer occupational health assessments;
  • look into reasonable adjustments, which can vary from changed hours, to adapted physical workspaces; and
  • discuss flexible working as an option as well as phased returns, which may mean coming back part-time initially to build back up to working usual hours.

It’s a good idea for the employer to focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make, rather than trying to work out if an employee’s condition is a disability.

If an employee is really struggling to do their job, the last resort would be to follow a capability procedure. You must make sure that a full and fair disciplinary or capability procedure is followed, otherwise the employee could make a claim of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal.

There is lots of tools and training I can support you, if you need any further advice contact me on 07855 374 511 or info@bphrconsultancy.co.uk