How to create an inclusive workplace for Long Covid sufferers

Is Long Covid having a debilitating impact on your employees?

Sally Tribe, PTS Corporate Clinical Lead, and Charlie Palmer, MSK Corporate Clinical Lead at Vita Health Group, explore the new reality for Long Covid sufferers, the impact the illness is having on both individuals and businesses, and the steps employers can take to ensure their workplace is inclusive for those who are dealing with the impact of Covid months down the line.

Being away from the workplace, separated from colleagues and lacking a familiar routine has left many people feeling insecure, unsure, and out of sorts. 18 months into the global Coronavirus pandemic, workspaces have begun to re-open their doors. Employees are once again enjoying the social, physical, and psychological benefits of being in a workspace. However, not everyone can embrace the opportunities that come with the easing of lockdown.

One of the many terrible consequences of COVID-19 has been the impact of Long Covid. While there is currently no universally agreed definition of Long Covid, studies have taught us that it can be incredibly debilitating, long-lasting, and an illness that is widespread. The symptoms are vast and unique to those experiencing them, but common complaints include brain fog, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle weakness and joint pain. These physical and mental symptoms have left many who felt very able and healthy before contracting COVID-19 incapable of going about their day-to-day lives.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint figures at this stage, the pool of research around Long Covid is growing. The ONS estimates that almost 14% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 symptoms subsequently experience symptoms that linger for three months or more. Research trials have also shown that the number of patients who have fully recovered is low – one study shows just three out of 100 patients confirmed full recovery. Other experts estimate that about 10% of the population who had COVID-19 have lingering symptoms.

Not only do the symptoms of Long Covid bring about physical challenges, similar to those we see in patients who live with disabling and complex conditions like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and Fibromyalgia, but their debilitating nature could also have a severe impact on a patient’s mental health. In most cases, patients need to make adaptations to the way they live, work and play; adaptions that can be hard to accept.

Indeed, these are heavy and worrying outcomes to digest. All this suggests that, even when the pandemic of acute COVID-19 has been handled, a sizeable issue will remain. Post-viral symptoms on this scale affect not only those experiencing them directly, but they can also have serious repercussions for those in the circles around them, including their co-workers and indeed their employers.  

Should employers treat Long Covid as a disability?

As this is a relatively new illness, it is difficult to know at this stage if it falls into the remit of a disability. However, given the increased prevalence of Long Covid, as an employer, you should be concerned about the impact of this on your employees who are suffering, your employees who may be caring for someone who is suffering, and the repercussions this could have on your business.

Indeed, if an individual’s Long Covid symptoms are substantially impacting their ability to complete day-to-day activities and the physical or mental impairment has continued – or is expected to continue – for a prolonged period, it may fall within the definition of a disability under the Equality Act.

Disability inclusion and employee wellbeing should be critical agendas in your business, not just for those directly impacted by illness or disability but also for your entire workforce. Study after study has shown that employees particularly value diversity and inclusion programmes.

Positive workplace culture attracts talent, drives engagement, impacts happiness and is important in helping people meet their full potential at work. Plus, we know that when business leaders take accountability for a more inclusive workplace, they are more likely to gain trust, respect, and loyalty from their employees. Indeed, employers with robust inclusion programmes can expect higher engagement from their workforce.

There is no doubt that a workplace that embraces difference and truly walks the walk on inclusion will benefit. After all, an inclusive workforce values employees for their strengths and offers those with both visible and invisible illness and disability equal opportunities to succeed.

How to create an inclusive workplace for Long Covid sufferers

Accept that Long Covid could be a significant challenge for your business

Your journey as a business starts with acceptance and compassion; acceptance that a portion of your workforce may be living with an illness that impacts their ability to perform at the level you are accustomed to, and compassion for those suffering, or anyone who it is indirectly impacted like those who may be caring for a loved-one for example.

In fact, a UK-based survey found that the ‘Long Covid’ affected the ability to work for 80% of those suffering from it.

You may think practising acceptance is only relevant to those people experiencing Long Covid, but it is important that business leaders and HR do too. Accepting that ‘Long Covid’ is a real public health problem and could become a problem for your workforce will greatly improve your ability to navigate the situation.

Collaborate with your employee to build a unique Long Covid strategy

Businesses can overcome the challenges Long Covid presents by ensuring employees who need support are involved in building a holistic mental and physical wellbeing strategy. That way, employers will ensure they are building something that truly reflects the needs of the individual. Ensuring employees feel supported and empowered to build a programme that suits their needs will also help lower absenteeism and maintain productivity.

Make reasonable adjustments for those Long Covid sufferers who can or would like to continue working. Provisions to support an individual’s mental and physical needs could include working shorter hours or starting the day later, taking more frequent breaks, or providing them with an office chair that supports their body.

Likely, you have already needed to adapt to a remote and more flexible way of working due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is your opportunity to harness your experience of the past year to create supportive and flexible strategies for individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

Create open lines of communication with your employee

As an employer, you have a significant level of accountability for your workforce’s wellbeing. But it must be accepted that health and wellbeing is a dual responsibility between you and your employee.

Employees often expect their employer to know what is happening and then dictate how to solve the issue. But employers and line managers are not mind readers. Employees need to raise any concerns they have with their employer as soon as possible; otherwise, things cannot be improved.

Look to implement company-wide training and communicate your Long Covid support plan to everyone in your business. It can be difficult for individuals to feel they can speak out and ask for support as with any illness. Living with an illness, especially one that is invisible and poorly understood, can feel alienating. Help those who are suffering speak out by normalising conversations around health, wellbeing and, in this case, Long Covid. It is beneficial for middle management and senior employees to lead the charge and, if they feel comfortable doing so, volunteer to share their own experiences.

Remind your employee of their value

Living with a mental or physical illness can lead to feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem. In some instances, your employees may be experiencing depression and anxiety due to contracting Long Covid, and others may be living with traumatic bereavement from the pandemic. It is important to remind the individual of their value, particularly when they may be feeling their contribution to the workplace is anything but. They may be concerned their position in the company or opportunities to progress will be taken away. Timely reminders that this is, indeed, not the case could help remove this weight of concern for your employee. Although it may feel like it to them, your employee is not alone on their journey, and you are an important part of helping them realise this.

Provide free access to talking therapies

The build-up of stress and worry that many people who have Long Covid experience can impact their resilience to cope with the demands of day-to-day life. Mental and physical illness can be a drain on emotional resource. However, the act of talking and unpacking complicated feelings with a therapist in a safe space, without judgement, can make a big difference to someone’s resilience.

The reality is that turning a problem around and around in your head often leads to a dead-end, or worse, increased feelings of stress and anxiety. Although individuals may be looking for a quick fix, short term solutions like suppressing feelings and emotions often turn into bigger and longer-term problems. Employees can help wrap their brain around the unique and often scary problems they are dealing with by vocalising their story. Sharing the weight of thoughts with someone else will help your employee reflect more clearly and logically.

Developing long-term strategies, support systems and creating an inclusive environment where people with Long Covid – or indeed any illness or disability – can succeed will reap the rewards for everyone. You may not control the circumstances around you, and you may be feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead. Still, the opportunity to support those in your workforce who have Long Covid whilst also growing as a business is plentiful.
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