The Office for National Statistics has estimated that more than 1 million people in Britain have suffered or are currently suffering from “post-COVID syndrome”, commonly known as “Long COVID”. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), has defined post-COVID syndrome as “signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.” Long COVID represents the next great unknown when it comes to employers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workforce management is potentially far-reaching.
In recent guidance, Acas encourages employers to treat Long COVID like any other illness. However, that advice masks the fact that Long COVID is not like other serious illnesses regularly dealt with by HR professionals. Symptoms of Long COVID vary greatly, ranging from breathlessness or organ damage to depression or memory loss. There is still much debate in the medical literature concerning the causes of Long COVID, as well as, crucially, its prognosis. It will therefore be very difficult for employers to obtain clear medical evidence on which to base their decisions. The TUC has recently called for long COVID to be recognised as a disability and individuals with serious symptoms may well be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, though, with virtually no evidence on the likely duration of symptoms (that is, whether the condition is likely to last for at least 12 months and therefore be “long term”), this is currently another unknown. A supportive (and prudent) employer however will err on the side of caution and will need to be thinking about appropriate adjustments for affected employees. Failure to make reasonable adjustments will put employers at risk of disability discrimination claims, and potentially other indirect discrimination claims based on the fact that certain groups sharing a particular characteristic may be at a higher risk of developing Long COVID.
However, this may be easier said than done for employers. The uncertainty in the medical science makes it very difficult for employers to make informed decisions about the type of adjustments that may be appropriate to support employees suffering with Long COVID, or, with uncertain prognoses, about what adjustments the business can support over the indefinite term. This could potentially be very difficult for HR teams to manage, with costs (in financial and business terms) that may be difficult to estimate with any accuracy.
There are some simple practical things that employers can begin to think about to prepare to support employees suffering Long COVID symptoms:
- Build your HR team’s and your managers’ knowledge. It is important that employees suffering from Long COVID are treated sensitively and supportively, and building understanding will help. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians has released guidance on Long COVID for employers and managers.
- Maintain an open line of communication, and encourage employees to speak to managers or HR if they are struggling. Symptoms can vary significantly from one affected worker to another, and indeed from one day to the next. Therefore, it is important to have regular one-on-one check-ins with affected employees to understand their symptoms and their needs, and how you can support them to maintain their performance.
- Seek medical advice from occupational health. Although there are still many uncertainties in the medical community about Long COVID, particularly in relation to prognosis, an occupational health specialist may still be able to provide you with helpful advice as to what adjustments may help to support an employee with particular symptoms.
- Try to be flexible and innovative in the ways in which you provide adjustments. As discussed, Long COVID is an emerging issue and much of it is unknown. However, what is clear is that it will affect a lot of individuals, so, to remain competitive, employers will need to make efforts to retain key talent.
- Be wary of “COVID-fatigue” and factor this into your management strategy. In our experience dealing with long-term sickness cases, for example where employees are diagnosed with a condition like cancer, management are very supportive when first becoming aware of a concern, but can become less supportive where illnesses have been continuing for a long time. With what will potentially be a chronic condition, HR professionals should be working from the start to facilitate long-term solutions and ensure that managers and teams are able to adjust and support the individual over an indefinite time period.
- If it is not possible to support individuals with Long COVID, exercise caution when it comes to dismissal conversations. The same considerations will apply as in other capability dismissal situations. However, employers will need to be aware of the risk of a challenge on the basis of unreliable medical evidence, given the many unknowns with this condition.