People with ‘long Covid’ should be able to access occupational health to support them to return to work, the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has said, yet a vast number of workers are still unable to benefit from OH services.
SOM said a significant proportion of staff with long Covid are at risk of falling out of the workforce without support, but only half the UK workforce has access to occupational health services.
It said many workers with long Covid could lose their jobs if their employers follow sickness absence policies developed before the pandemic. This is because long Covd patients often require many months of recuperation and absence from work.
More than two million people in England are thought to have experienced lingering symptoms of Covid-19, including breathlessness, fatigue and “brain fog”. A study has found some 6% of people who had Covid-19 experienced symptoms lasting 12 weeks or more.
OH practitioners have found that workers with long Covid have previously had little support and advice from their employers when they are referred to them, according to SOM.
It said patients need to be given access to a professional who understands their symptoms, advise on how they can improve their functioning, and help develop a plan for a sustainable and flexible return to work.
Lesley Macniven, campaigner for the patient group Long Covid Support and chair of its multidisciplinary employment group, said: “It makes no sense, morally, ethically, or economically, that healthcare and other key workers, who contracted Covid-19 whilst working during the pandemic’s first wave, are being discarded; losing their vocation, their livelihood and their health.
“They need more than warm words and memories of weekly applause. Employers need solid guidance and practical advice from occupational health and patient groups who have built up significant expertise on managing long Covid. Workers need to convalesce, then recuperate through a very gradual, phased return to work (over many months if absence has already been prolonged) to allow a sustainable return.”
SOM recommended that:
- the NHS supports long Covid patients with their to return to work by providing access to occupational health, as occurs in Finland;
- OH support is given to healthcare professionals and other key workers with long Covid, with specific attention to retaining workers where skills shortages exist;
- appropriate flexible working options are implemented to enable staff to return to work and to drive uptake of hybrid working;
- organisations develop a clear and accessible policies on long Covid, with input from affected workers and/or patient advocates, with managers also supported to implement these policies; and
- investment into OH services is provided so they can support the needs of workers with long Covid.
The research was published by SOM to coincide with the society’s ‘Occupational Health Awareness Week‘, which is running this week (28 June to 02 July) and is promoting wider public and professional awareness of OH as well as the value of pursuing a career within occupational health.