Almost half (46%) of organisations have employees who have experienced long Covid in the past 12 months, a study has shown, with access to occupational health being seen as a key way to manage and support this long-term, and potentially debilitating, condition.
Research from the HR body the CIPD along with health insurer Simplyhealth has also found one in four employers (26%) now include long Covid among their main causes of long-term sickness absence.
Worryingly, the survey of 804 organisations representing more than 4.3 million employees concluded that a fifth (20%) of employers did not know whether any employees had experienced ongoing symptoms from Covid-19 in the last year, suggesting the problem could be underestimated as a workplace issue.
Only a quarter (26%) of organisations were providing training or guidance for line managers on how to support people to stay at work when managing health conditions, and an even smaller number (19%) provided any guidance for employees.
This meant some employees could be missing out on vital support from their employer or may not feel confident about how to disclose any issues and get the right support, the CIPD argued.
However, more positively, of those employers with employees who have experienced long Covid, many were taking steps to support their staff. Actions included:
- Offering occupational health assessments (70%)
- Tailoring support to individual need (60%)
- Promoting flexible working (58%)
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said: “Long Covid remains a growing issue that employers need to be aware of, and they should take appropriate steps to support employees with the condition. There’s a risk that those who experience ongoing long Covid symptoms may not get the support they need in the workplace and could even fall out of work.”
There’s a risk that those who experience ongoing long Covid symptoms may not get the support they need in the workplace and could even fall out of work.” – Rachel Suff, CIPD
‘Timely and accessible’ access to occupational health
Within the report, Working with long Covid, the CIPD and Simplyhealth outlined a number of key recommendations to help organisations and individuals manage and better understand long Covid.
The insight has been built from three roundtable discussions with professionals working in HR and allied health professional roles, and interviews with employees who had returned to work with long Covid. It is based around the ‘Igloo’ model, or: individual employee, group, line manager, organisation, and outside resources.
For individuals, the report has recommended organisations provide clear and accessible information on employment rights, encourage employees to be open and honest about the effect their symptoms have on their work, encourage people to pace themselves, and provide access to advice and training on self-management strategies.
For groups or enabling group support, it has advised providing access to education and training to increase the understanding and awareness, monitoring workload if a team member is absent from work or working reduced hours, and prioritising wellbeing at work regular check-ins and wellness action plans.
For line managers, the CIPD and Simplyhealth have recommended more training to be put in place on supporting employee return to work, providing guidance and training to increase line managers’ understanding and awareness of long Covid, and ensure line managers are provided with discretion to ‘operationalise’ their absence management policies in a compassionate way.
For organisations, the report recommends reviewing long-term or chronic absence management policies and framework, being flexible and compassionate and, critically, to “provide access to occupational health services in a timely and accessible way.”
On top of this, providing access to financial education, ensuring leaders fully understand the impact of long Covid, and creating a more open and inclusive work climate can all help.
Finally, when it comes to factors outside of the organisation, the report recommends making sure everyone involved, but especially line managers, is aware of and compassionate about any delays in securing a diagnosis and rehabilitation support.
Then it is a good idea to be signposting employees to external support, such local, charitable or community support or the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme (in England), or the government’s Access to Work scheme or support groups such as the Long COVID Support group.
Long Covid ‘triple burden’
However, the report concedes in conclusion that many employees with long Covid are currently facing a struggle to remain, or get back into, work and, in particular, face a triple burden.
This is, first, the absence of clear rehabilitation pathways because healthcare specialists are still continuing to learn about the Covid-related condition.
Second, the fact colleagues, friends and family members, line managers and HR professionals are all still “depleted and preoccupied” with other matters because of the pandemic.
“This means that many employees with long Covid may be receiving less support than those who experienced long-term illnesses pre-pandemic,” the report argues.
Finally, third, the pressure on the healthcare sector because of the pandemic, combined with the high volume of people seeking diagnosis and support for long Covid, is continuing to cause long waits for diagnosis and treatment.