Why long Covid could be a chronic issue for UK plc

An employment tribunal has ruled that someone with long Covid can be categorised as disabled under the Equality Act 2010. What does this mean for employers and employees?

After contracting Covid at the start of this year, William Pickthorn, an account executive at PR firm MikeWorldWide, was surprised by the length and severity of his illness. Even though he was a relatively healthy person – he’d run the London Marathon in October 2021 – his fitness declined rapidly. He experienced regular bouts of breathlessness and extended periods of extreme fatigue.

“My whole body stopped working properly. I struggled to walk at all,” he recalls. “My limbs constantly felt numb, I had difficulty breathing and my heart was beating like mad.” 

Pickthorn is among an estimated 1.8 million Britons who have experienced long Covid symptoms, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Two-thirds of sufferers claim that their ongoing condition is adversely affecting their day-to-day activities, with 19% reporting that their capacity to perform these has been “limited a lot”.

For many people, this means an inability to do their regular work. Long Covid is thought to be one cause of the UK’s high rate of economic inactivity. ONS data indicates that 447,000 more people aged 16 to 64 were classed as economically inactive between February and April this year than there were between December 2019 and February 2020, immediately before the pandemic started. Although other factors, including the great resignation and a wave of early retirements, have played their part, it’s estimated that long-term sickness absence has accounted for two-thirds of this increase.

It’s becoming a problem for employers. In February, a survey of more than 800 enterprises by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) found that 46% of them had employees who’d experienced long Covid in the preceding 12 months. More than a quarter of respondents cited it as one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence in their organisations.

The growing issue of long Covid

Rachel Suff is a senior CIPD policy adviser specialising in employee relations. She warns that long Covid is “a growing issue that employers need to be aware of. They should take appropriate steps to support employees with the condition. There’s a risk that those who experience ongoing symptoms may not receive the support they need and could even fall out of work.” 

The survey also found that 26% of respondents were providing guidance to line managers on how to support staff with long-term health problems. But, given that a recent Scottish employment tribunal ruled that an employee suffering from long Covid was disabled in the eyes of the law, this percentage will need to increase.

There’s a risk that those who experience long Covid symptoms may not receive the support they need

The landmark decision in favour of Terence Burke in his claim of discrimination and unfair dismissal against Turning Point Scotland means that people suffering Covid symptoms for an extended period can be deemed disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if these have a substantial impact on their daily activities. Employers must therefore be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to help such individuals in their work.

“Employers must apply the same considerations to employees with long Covid as they would to those with any other long-term medical condition,” explains Helen Snow, an employment lawyer and partner at Geldards. “That means ensuring that they have comprehensive policies in place covering sickness, absence and long-term sick leave.”

Safeguards for employees under the act include the right not to be treated less favourably because of their disability; the right not to be subjected to any provision, criterion or practice that puts them at a particular disadvantage compared with other workers; and protections against harassment.

Snow adds: “We have seen several high-profile cases of discrimination and unfair dismissal linked to Covid-19, including cases where employees have been forced back to work. Employers must ensure that they deal fairly and in accordance with their own policies to ensure that they don’t become the subject of any future cases.”

How to support workers with long Covid

From an HR perspective, the focus should be on “supporting that employee, so that they can continue contributing to the organisation while maintaining their wellbeing”, says Emma Parry, professor of HR management at Cranfield University. 

The fact that long Covid is a relatively new illness with a wide range of symptoms does complicate matters. This can make it hard for an organisation to understand what adjustments someone might need and how their condition, and therefore their requirements, could change over time.

Parry would encourage an employer to “undertake open honest discussions with the affected employee, alongside a formal occupational health assessment to develop an action plan for their return to work”. This might include a phased return to work, a move to part-time and/or flexible employment, a reduction in workload or the freedom to pause work if need be.

Over the longer term, ongoing communication will be key in tracking any changes in the individual’s needs. 

“Dealing with long Covid requires a flexible approach to address its unpredictability and build an understanding of how someone’s condition might progress,” Parry says. “Organisations should work to develop a culture that supports this flexibility and provides the trust and psychological safety for employees to discuss their health needs on an ongoing basis.”

Software company Advanced is an employer that has committed itself to recruiting more people with chronic health conditions. As part of a partnership with charity Astriid, it plans to hire 15 people who are affected by a disability or a lasting illness – including long Covid – over the coming 12 months.

“In England alone, 15 million people are living with at least one long-term health condition,” says Alex Arundale, chief people experience officer at Advanced. “The consequence is an invisible talent pool of skilled professionals who have expertise to contribute but who may need an inclusive workplace and some flexibility to do so.”

According to Arundale, people’s varying experiences of long Covid and the problems that many patients have had with obtaining a diagnosis can make it hard for an employer to determine what the most appropriate support measures might be for each individual. 

“Our approach is about ensuring that we provide flexibility about when and where they work. That supports the truth of how they are feeling, rather than requiring a diagnosis,” she says.

Some of the adjustments that Advanced is making include judging people’s performance on output rather than attendance and broadening its employee assistance programme. “Building inclusivity and developing trust allows you to support people with long Covid,” Arundale adds.

Thanks to the successful NHS vaccination programme, the worst of the crisis seems to be over in the UK. Indeed, despite the recent upsurge in infections, many commentators are using the over-optimistic phrase ‘post-pandemic era’ already. But long Covid is a problem that might last for years after the pandemic is officially declared over – an enduring legacy issue that employers must urgently address.