Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing
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Long-Covid illness
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Long Covid: Managing the impact of long-term sickness

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With the post-infection effects of Covid-19 becoming ever more apparent, do you have the tools to deal with an inevitable year-long bill of absence?

27th Oct 2021
Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing
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The UK adult population is now mostly double vaccinated against Covid-19, and the link between infection, hospitalisation, and death appears to be significantly weakened. Yet Covid-19 is not just an illness with the binary outcomes of survival or death alone. For the longer-form of the infection - known as long Covid - remains a very real problem for the nation, and by extension its employers and Human Resources professionals too.

Medium and long-term long Covid absences are likely to become far more commonplace for employers in the winter immediately ahead

Exploring the facts

Long Covid is now becoming a genuine employment issue. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlight that:

  • 1.1 million people in the UK are experiencing long Covid symptoms for more than 4 weeks after initial infection.

  • 831,000 have suffered for at least twelve weeks.

  • 405,000 have suffered for at least a year.   

This last statistic is perhaps the most worrying. Those people unfortunate enough to suffer with the illness for more than a year will have contracted the virus in the very first UK wave of COVID-19, since when the UK has weathered two huge waves of the virus and is still facing 40,000 new infections on a daily basis. This suggests that many more may soon join the legion of year long Covid sufferers. And many of these people will be of working age.

Risk factors

For the risk factors of long Covid are significantly different to those of the more severe form of the infection. The evidence base is still a work in progress, yet it appears the key long Covid risk factors include (but are not limited to):

  • Female
  • Those who experience 5+ symptoms on initial infection
  • High body mass
  • Those with another serious health condition
  • Those aged between 35 and 69

The employer problem

The last factor in the figures above is significant for employers. It appears that long Covid is most likely to be experienced in the working-age population of the UK and is now also on the increase in the young adult (those aged 17-24 years) age groups too. This suggests that medium and long-term long Covid absences are likely to become far more commonplace for employers in the winter immediately ahead, and possibly for years to come. And that is an issue for employers.

Employer response

Long-term absence is something that all organisations are always keen to avoid, and no more so than after 18 months of on-off pandemic restrictions. The reality is that most employers are desperate to return to some normality - and full productivity - and to achieve this all employees must be healthy and able to undertake their daily work. It follows that it is in the interests of employers to now focus on how they can best support workers suffering with long Covid.

Commonly recorded symptoms of long Covid include fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty concentrating yet that is only the tip of the iceberg

Acceptance and understanding

A good starting point for employers is to accept that long Covid is often difficult to define or explain. According to the ONS report, commonly recorded symptoms of long Covid include fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty concentrating. Yet that is only the tip of the iceberg, with more than 200 different symptoms recorded to date, and evidence of a fluctuation between symptoms over time.

Such wide variations inevitably result in some sufferers being doubted by employers and occasionally even medical professionals too. This doubt can be corrosive to the employee’s confidence and ability to recover and if the employer is not supportive from outset, then this also has the potential to permanently scar the employer/employee relationship.

Signposting

So, trust is important, but so too is some practical employer support for the employee. As a minimum all employers should do what they can to signpost employees towards support tools that are already freely available. In particular the following websites might be of use include NHS: Your Covid Recovery and the ZOE Covid Study.

However, it should be noted that NHS diagnosis and treatments for long Covid are still at an early stage (as can be evidenced in this video from minute 31). As a result there are sadly too many patients resorting to their own research and medication to try and speed recovery. The potential risks of this approach are self-evident.

Active support

Employers should also be aiming to deploy all the tools available within their exiting employee benefits offering to support workers with informed, qualified, and practical support. At the most basic level this may mean referring employees to Employee Assistance Programmes and/or remote GP appointments, so that the employee can seek further advice, reassurance, and direction to appropriate treatments.

Employers should also seek to reassure ill employees with other key elements of the existing employee benefits offering

More robust employee benefits packages will also include access to private healthcare to help the employee swiftly receive treatments whilst simultaneously bypassing the rapidly growing NHS waiting lists.

Sick pay and Group Income Protection (GIP)

And employers should also seek to reassure ill employees with other key elements of the existing employee benefits offering. Many employees will have company sick pay policies and/or Group Income Protection policies in place to ensure a continuation of salary for a period of time. Reminding employees of these features will be reassuring at a time of great uncertainty.

Group Income Protection policies often include free-to-use Early Intervention Services, which are specifically designed to support employees to an early return to work where practical. This feature alone may prove particularly useful to all parties, so employers should look to utilise this option when available. All employers should review their employee benefits offering to see if improvements can be made to better support employees with long Covid – or indeed any other major illness – in the future.

Take action!

The reality is that long Covid may still be with us many months - or even years - after the worst of the health crisis has passed and is likely to manifest itself in workforces across the nation in the winter ahead. HR professionals should therefore prepare their response to this issue and ensure that every tool available is used to maximum effect to reassure and support employees back to full health.  

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