Employers are being encouraged to invest in fast-track private scans and specialist consultations as a way to get employees with long Covid back on their feet and returning to work more quickly.
Although the NHS has set up a limited network of specialist long Covid centres, they are being hampered by long waiting lists. Many people with long Covid are now complaining of financial hardship and a ‘postcode lottery’ for access to treatment and support.
Some two million people now thought to be living with sometimes significant long-term symptoms since catching the virus, numbers that are only likely to go up with the UK now potentially entering another wave of Covid-19.
Speaking at an Institute of Directors Scotland event on Wednesday to mark Occupational Health Awareness Week, which finishes today (June 24), retired consultant occupational physician and long Covid expert Dr Clare Rayner urged businesses to think more creatively in how they support the condition.
“We have learnt that early intervention can make a significant difference to the severity and length of long Covid,” she said.
“A one-off scan or specialist consultation in the early phase to pinpoint the key issues can mean recovery within weeks rather than months, but the NHS simply won’t have capacity to deliver that in the near future.
“If businesses have the means and foresight to pay for a private appointment on behalf of their employees, which usually costs less than the equivalent of a week’s sickness absence, it will most likely lead to a significant reduction in medium- to long-term staff absences,” she added.
OH assessment and the profession’s expertise and leadership are becoming increasingly recognised by employers as key to managing long Covid and return to work. But Dr Rayner, who has experienced long Covid herself, also highlighted just how challenging long Covid could be on the demand for a relatively small profession such as OH.
“Occupational health specialists tend to focus on health issues that affect daily functioning, result in long absences or need multiple interventions. Long Covid is a perfect storm of all those things combined,” she said.
Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also highlighted the valuable role OH can play in managing and mitigating the impact of long Covid.
“Long Covid symptoms like fatigue and impaired cognitive function plus the impact on physical health and changes to daily life, can be debilitating. For those who were treated in intensive care, there’s also an increased risk of PTSD, depression and anxiety,” he said.
“Getting help early is key to managing the adverse effects of long Covid, especially when it comes to the ability to work. Occupational health specialists are absolutely vital in providing care and recommending adjustments to support people to remain in work, especially where employment is beneficial to their mental health,” he added.
SOM, the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) and the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association (Cohpa), which together ran the awareness week, have identified long Covid and mental health as the two most critical workplace health issues of 2022.
On mental health, fellow speaker at the conference psychiatrist Professor Neil Greenberg, said: “Employers should be commended for taking the mental health of employees increasingly seriously, but we urgently need to move away from the reactive approach that has become commonplace in UK workplaces to a more preventative strategy.”
A YouGov survey for SOM and Cohpa published during the week found that UK adults see factors such as work-life balance (76%), good management and leadership (66%), and good workplace culture (58%) as most important for employee health.
Professor Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College London, said: “When it comes to mental health in the workplace, the similarities between the survey results and what we know as specialists is very striking. The public view on what works fits very well with the scientific view: that preventative strategies such as work-life balance and good workplace culture make all the difference when it comes to mental wellbeing at work.
“Given the rising cost to mental health to the UK economy, business leaders should be reassured that investment towards positive cultural change, especially ensuring that all supervisors are able to have a psychologically savvy chat with their teams, will pay off both in terms of both employee health and organisational effectiveness.
“There is a key group of organisations getting ahead of the game in occupational health with a more strategic and preventative approach to addressing the mental health of employees,” Professor Greenberg added.