NHS staff with long Covid are reporting feeling pressured into returning to work before they’re fully recovered for fear of losing their jobs.
According to a survey by the health workers’ union Unison, NHS workers say a combination of anxiety, fear and “shockingly bad” treatment from managers is leaving many staff feeling they have no option but to return to work before they are well enough.
In a wider survey of health workers, 1,900 of the respondents (including healthcare assistants, nurses, porters and clinical support staff) reported having had or still experiencing long Covid symptoms.
More than two in three (68%) said they were back in the workplace despite still suffering with symptoms including breathlessness, fatigue, brain fog and aching joints.
A total of 8% were still so poorly they’ve been unable to go back to work at all. Almost a quarter (24%), however, said they had fully recovered.
Four in ten (43%) of the health workers who have or have had long Covid said their employer had gone the extra mile when it came to giving them support to return to work.
This included adjusting job roles, enabling a flexible return to work, or allowing time off without staff using up their sickness or leave entitlement.
However, more than four in ten (46%) said that, although their employer was initially supportive, this changed as time went on.
Almost one in ten (9%) had been asked to attend a formal absence hearing, and 2% reported being threatened with disciplinary action or even the sack.
The figures follow the Office for National Statistics last month publishing figures suggesting as many as 784,000 people have been experiencing long Covid symptoms for at least a year and 74,000 for at least two years, so going right back to the start of the pandemic.
The Unison findings were published at the union’s annual health conference in Liverpool, where a motion was passed calling on employers to do more to support staff with long Covid back into the workforce by making reasonable adjustments to their roles.
During a debate on the topic, delegates heard that Black NHS staff with long Covid were more likely to face the harshest punishments. Sickness absence and performance management systems were also more frequently used against Black staff reporting long Covid symptoms.
Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: “Long Covid must be seen and treated as a disability so staff with the condition are protected and supported to return to work. Some health workers are being punished for being ill and risk being driven out of the health service, just when they are needed the most.
“That so many NHS staff are back at work despite still being poorly illustrates their dedication to their jobs. But some are likely to be returning too soon because they’re worried that managers will turn against them if they take the time they need to recover fully. This is no way to treat staff who’ve given their all to get the nation through the pandemic,” she added.