Working With Long Covid – Recommendations For The Workplace

This month, CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) released a new report with the aim of developing a deeper insight into the experiences of people with Long Covid in the workplace. Today, we’d like to summarise what they found, and discuss how this aligns with Astriid’s own thinking toward long-term illness inclusion in the workplace.

Why Long Covid?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of people in the UK alone have experienced Long Covid. Here at Astriid, demand for our services has increased significantly over the last couple of years, as people with Long Covid have registered as candidates seeking employment support they cannot find elsewhere. We wholeheartedly welcome people with Long Covid to utilise our services, and we’re delighted to have helped many people with the condition find fulfilling work that’s inclusive of their needs.

We know that many people who’ve lived with chronic illnesses for years or decades have sometimes felt frustrated and alienated by the funding and attention that Long Covid has elicited in such a short period of time, in comparison to other conditions. Although Long Covid comes with its own amount of stigmatisation, we empathise with people who feel their own lived experiences have once again been pushed to the back of the line.

However, the barriers that come with energy-limiting conditions bind us together as one community, and it makes sense that we should stand in solidarity with each other. The key symptoms of Long Covid mirror those of many other chronic illnesses among our candidates, and therefore any research developments and positive practice could have valuable implications for a much wider patient group than Long Covid alone.

Why Is Long Covid An Important Workplace Issue?

Although the report acknowledges the similarities between Long Covid and other long-term illnesses, it makes the important point the increased amounts of uncertainty due to the newness of the condition and the huge increase in cases in such a short space of time means that this area warrants a particular focus – especially in the context of the pandemic which has significantly limited time and resources in all areas of medicine.

In 2020, the Patient Led Research Collaborative (self-organised by people with Long Covid) found that 45% of their sizeable research sample were working part-time hours, and 22% were unable to work at all. There was great variability in how severely individuals were affected by the condition, but many reported having to use their annual leave or take unpaid sickness leave to factor in the rest time they needed to remain in work. Further research by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) found that 18% of people in their sample who were taking additional leave, and 4% were threatened with disciplinary proceedings for having this increased time off. Although further research is warranted, these findings indicate that the presence of Long Covid is having a significant impact not only on individual working lives, but potentially the wider workforce too.

The Challenges Of Returning To And Staying In Work

As with many similar conditions, people with Long Covid have had varying experiences of returning to and staying in work. Positive experiences were those which particularly utilised early communication, gradual and flexible return to work phases, and support from the people around them. This mirrors some of the findings from our own research report, and emphasises that being proactive in these measures can be invaluable.

However, others report pressure to return to work while still feeling unwell, being confronted with a full-on workload before they feel ready, and having no access to workplace adjustments. As current thinking indicates that Long Covid, like ME/CFS and similar conditions, is best controlled by strategies such as pacing and activity management, such a demanding return to work is likely to have had more negative implications for a person’s health over the longer run than spending more time off resting and recovering would have done.

Examples of workplace adjustments that may benefit people with Long Covid can be found on page 10 of the report. These adjustments mirror those that were most commonly identified by our sample in our recent research report, emphasising the need to ensure that they can be readily implemented by those who need them, and that individuals know they are something they can request.

The report argues that there is a need for Long Covid to be incorporated into workplace absence management and support. Through our work as a charity, we’re well aware of the benefits of being in meaningful and inclusive work for individuals and organisations, and this report furthers that by emphasising that early intervention removes additional workload and (in their words) ‘burden of work’ for HR professionals associated with an organisation.

It also highlights that on a governmental level, large-scale absences affect the economy, especially in the healthcare sector where Long Covid seems to be most prevalent amongst workers. Additionally, Long Covid is having a disproportionate impact on groups that were already disadvantaged in terms of work and health. Therefore, urgent support is needed to limit further health and economic inequality for those affected.

Report Recommendations

This report recognises that although Long Covid presents new challenges, many of the concerns raised are not new: thousands of people with long-term conditions also face these barriers, and yet meaningful change is yet to come. To establish key themes at different levels, the organisation engaged 42 HR professionals in three roundtable discussions and identified the following:

– To support individuals with Long Covid, organisations should provide ‘clear and accessible information’ on a person’s employment rights, encourage people to be open about any struggles they’re experiencing, encourage pacing and condition management, and provide access to advice and training on self-management strategies that could benefit them in work.

– To improve group support, organisations should ensure their disability and equality training is up to date for all staff and ensure Long Covid is covered in the content. They should also monitor team members’ workload during absences or peaks in demand and provide support to manage this, and prioritise team wellbeing by arranging regular check-ins and wellness action plans.

– Manager support can be improved by providing training specifically focussing on the return-to-work process and implementing workplace adjustments. They should also be able to provide guidance and training which covers Long Covid in more detail and emphasises wellbeing, and ensure line managers have discretion to operationalise the absence process and any management policies in a more compassionate way.

– Organisations should review absence management policies to ensure they are flexible, compassionate and make room for individual needs. Organisations should also provide timely access to occupational services, and financial education to support those learning to manage a reduced income. Leaders should have a solid understanding and continued education of Long Covid, to help foster an inclusive work climate.

There are also external factors that are outside of organisations’ direct control but could still improve the situation for people with Long Covid. These include ensuring key stakeholders are compassionate about the challenges of diagnosing and managing the condition, and ensuring employees are aware of potential physical and mental health support available to them.

The report concludes that many employees with Long Covid face ‘a triple burden’. They face an uncertain journey due to the relative newness of the condition and lack of defined pathways available, they are perceived to receive less support from the people around them due to the increasing challenges of the pandemic for everybody in society, and the pressure on the healthcare sector means that wait times for diagnosis and treatment are even more extended than usual.

As such, it is absolutely essential that there is a framework in place to support employees with Long Covid in the workplace, to ease this burden as much as possible, reduce inequalities, and ensure they can continue to thrive.

Here at Astriid, we help talented people with long-term health conditions (and carers) find meaningful work. If you would like support, please register your skills as a candidate and our team will be in touch. If you’re an employer looking to diversify your workforce and embrace the untapped talent pool of people with chronic illnesses, we’d love to hear from you!