The vaccination roll-out across the UK is proving to be a success, and the prime minister’s recent exit roadmap announcement has given many of us a more hopeful view of the future. However, for line managers and, in turn, HR departments, there are continuing questions about the consequences of “long COVID”.
An estimated one-in-ten people who contracted the coronavirus may suffer from this condition, presenting with symptoms that include breathing difficulties, nausea, severe fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, lack of concentration, muscle aches, and even hair loss. The disproportionate effect of the virus on BAME communities has also been well-established by public health analysts.
The problem is that this is a little-understood and unpredictable condition that varies from person to person and fluctuates both in symptoms and intensity from day-to-day. It adds a new set of people management challenges to the difficulties businesses are already facing.
Any organisation could find that it has a portion of its staff struggling with long COVID for many months, with the status of the condition uncertain. Some job roles may allow long COVID sufferers to continue working, while other more physically demanding roles could be impossible when symptoms flare up. Likely, many of these sufferers will only find they cannot work very short notice.
The medical profession admits it has only just begun to understand the longer-term effects of COVID-19, so firm medical and legal guidance for businesses will be hard to come by for many months. While some employees will be on long-term sick leave, others may work relatively normally for periods of time. For employees who have experienced significant symptoms but feel capable of working, a phased return is likely to be a reasonable adjustment that employers could consider.
Managers, with the support of HR, will have to match work requirements to individual circumstances as they change and evolve. Although long COVID may not be classified as an occupational illness or disability at the moment, employers need to show they have taken the individual’s requirements into account, adjusting location or hours of work, for example, and providing access to employee assistance programmes where these are available.
Employers also need to consider how they can accommodate employees with partners or other immediate family members who are long COVID sufferers. They need to have appropriate policies in place if an employee suddenly has to take on more care responsibilities, affecting their hours of work.
Some employers may have furloughed employees with the condition, although this needs careful handling as government guidance is that using furlough is not for short-term sickness absence. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may have extended the furlough scheme until September. Still, HR departments should use this period of time to consider their sickness absence policy towards employees with long COVID before the scheme ends.
Looking further ahead as organisations move into the post-vaccination era, maintaining regular and meaningful contact with workers suffering from long COVID will be essential. Managers need to check in regularly with team members who are working with the condition (or who are caring for close relatives with it) on a one-to-one basis to monitor wellbeing and report back to HR to ensure there is a collective understanding of the overall health of the organisation.
Managers also need to stay connected to employees with the illness who have been signed off for a period of time; once an absence is more than four weeks, this is considered long-term. It is vital in these circumstances to ensure contact is maintained, as it is harder to bring someone back into full-time work when they have been on long-term sick leave and may feel forgotten about. Managers should agree with their employee what that contact looks like; regular, informal conversations are far more effective than intermittent emails and far more personal.
This kind of frequent, informal connectivity with a workforce is much easier if organisations have access to the right type of technology. Technology should be an enabler, not a blocker to employee check-ins.
Although the workplace will gradually return to a semblance of normality after the pandemic, long COVID is a significant aspect of work that people managers and HR departments will have to be fully on top of. It is essential they maintain up to date knowledge of the condition and any legal ramifications as official guidance changes. But managers must also ensure they remain in regular and meaningful contact with their employees who have the condition and keep HR departments updated. To neglect, this could jeopardise the health and productivity of a tenth of the workforce.