phased return to work ‘unlikely’ to help fatigued employees

Employers should consider longer-term work adjustments for employees with long Covid, as the lasting nature of the illness will mean a short-term phased return to work is ‘unlikely to be effective’.

The advice from employment law, HR and health and safety support firm WorkNest came as the Office for National Statistics released figures showing an estimated 2 million people – or 3.1% of the population – are living with long Covid, which is defined as symptoms lasting more than four weeks after their first suspected coronavirus infection.

Some 19% who said they had long Covid claimed to have been suffering for more than two years, and 42% for at least a year.

Seventy-one per cent said their symptoms affected their daily activities, with 20% stating that their ability to go about their day-to-day tasks had been “limited a lot”.

Fatigue was the most common symptom (55%), followed by shortness of breath (32%), cough (23%) and muscle aches (23%).

The prevalence of long Covid was greatest in those aged 35 to 69 years; female’s; people living in more deprived areas; those working in social care, teaching and education or healthcare; and those with another activity-limiting health condition or disability.

The figures are self-reported, which suggests their long Covid diagnosis may not have been confirmed by a medical professional.

James Tamm, director of legal services at WorkNest, said organization leaders and managers should take time to understand long Covid and the ways it can affect people, as well as the ways that occupational health teams can support employees.

He said: “Affected workers need to be referred to occupational health so that their symptoms and fitness for work can be properly assessed. Are they still able to do their jobs to the same extent? Are any adjustments needed in order to help keep them in work?

“Flexible preparation for each individual worker is vital. Chronic illnesses are dynamic in nature – what an employee can do one day may change drastically the next. Over-exertion can make matters worse, so reduced hours might be considered. Long Covid sufferers may also need more than the average number of sick days. An assessment can help to identify which adjustments are likely to bring the most benefit.”

Flexible preparation for each individual worker is vital. Chronic illnesses are dynamic in nature – what an employee can do one day may change drastically the next” – James Tamm, WorkNest

He said a phased return to work might not be the best way to support an employee with long Covid, as fatigue can persist for months.

“More practical options are likely to include a longer-term planned reduction in hours, enforced and frequent rest breaks, a focus on the worker pacing themselves, or even a change of role. Emotional support for potential mental health issues should also be considered,” he suggested.

“Being proactive and not reactive is the key take-away. Employers should be alert to the issue and build their knowledge of and capabilities around long Covid.”

Many employment law experts and bodies including the TUC have suggested that long Covid may meet the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010, thus affording workers enhanced protections against redundancy and discrimination, as well as the requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments.

However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently clarified that not all cases of long Covid will amount to disability, and stated that it will only meet the criteria if it has a “substantial and long-term adverse affect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

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