Long Covid can affect many areas of an employee’s life – and the health and wellbeing benefits and interventions offered by employers can help reduce the impact it can have, writes David Williams.
At Towergate Health & Protection, we have been seeing an increase in employers asking about how they can support employees with ‘long Covid’ and this is set to continue.
In the UK, 300,000 people have reported Covid symptoms lasting longer than a month. The condition is only just beginning to be understood and, as cases of Covid-19 increase, this is likely to have a knock-on effect on the number of cases of ‘long Covid’.
As such, all employers need to be aware of the potential impact on their workforce, and how they can support employees that may be affected.
While coronavirus itself passes quickly for most sufferers, some people are experiencing long-term effects, which bring different challenges and considerations for employers. Long Covid can affect many areas of an employee’s life, and the impact can be complex and escalate. However, the health and wellbeing industry, including group risk, has been working hard to provide support specifically for employers to offer their employees affected by long Covid.
Informing employers in this area is incredibly important, so they are aware of what is available now and can offer support to staff while it’s needed – this is not something that can wait for review. The support services, when used correctly, can make a significant difference to the three key areas of employee health: physical, financial and emotional.
There has been increased focus on prevention and early intervention within health and wellbeing benefits, with support being offered to employees when they experience physical or mental health issues, whether or not they’re absent from work. This can include providing access to physiotherapy, on-demand consultations with GPs, a prescription delivery service and nutrition advice, right through to rehabilitation, support on improving fitness and help with returning to work.
Long Covid can have varied symptoms, many of which can be easily confused for other conditions, for example joint pain or fatigue. The professionals who provide these services have up-to-date knowledge of these symptoms associated with long Covid, and this increases their need and value to employees who might otherwise overlook the signs.
Placing these support services within easy reach of employees is crucial in making the process work. Take video GP services, for example, where a GP appointment can be booked and attended through a smartphone app. Their simplicity and ease-of-access encourages people to engage with them early, thus improving speed of diagnosis and treatment and resulting in better health outcomes for employees.
Most coronavirus cases would lead to short-term absence from work which would generally be covered by a company’s sick pay policy, so an employee is unlikely to be significantly out of pocket during the initial illness. Long Covid on the other hand could see an employee absent from work for many months, often long after the company sick pay has dried up.
The professionals who provide these services have up-to-date knowledge of these symptoms associated with long Covid, and this increases their need and value to employees who might otherwise overlook the signs.”
Group income protection policies taken out by employers for their employees fill the void here. They provide financial support if people are unable to work because of medium- or long-term sickness – be that mental or physical – and including long Covid. Income protection policies will continue the sick pay payments into the long term, generally kicking in when the company sick pay ends, for example after three months. In the UK only 2.6 million employees are currently covered by this employee benefit out of a working population of nearly 33 million. There are clearly many UK workers exposed to potential financial hardship, which can be easily protected against.
The emotional toll of a long-term illness can affect many areas of an employee’s life. It can result in a range of issues including anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly after treatment in an intensive care unit. Indeed, anxiety and depression are specifically included in the list of long Covid symptoms.
Having access to specialists that can support people through this aspect of long Covid can be a great help. Dependants and families can have their own worries too when a loved one is affected, and support can also be extended to them. There are many options available to employers here, often embedded within other employee benefits, for example mental health support services or employee assistance programmes. But these services need to be clearly signposted to employees so they know where to turn and can get the most out of them.
We have seen positive news recently regarding Covid-19 vaccine developments but treatments for the condition are still being trialled and employers may assume there’s nothing they can do to support those with “long Covid”. The reality is that there is already excellent support available if you know where to look. Organisations should make sure that they are up to speed on what can be made available within their company, what is already available and how best to let their employees know what they can access.
Being prepared for the impact of this condition needs to be part and parcel of all health and wellbeing programmes. Addressing these points now will be key to defending against the long Covid shadow looming on the horizon.