Imogen Cardwell | Clinical Operations Director at PAM Group
How to rehabilitate employees affected by Long Covid
With many employees continuing to suffer a range of debilitating symptoms, months after having Covid, we look at three ways to help them recover.
According to the NHS, over half a million people in the UK had Long Covid towards the end of last year. A condition defined as consisting of wide-ranging symptoms persisting for more than 12 weeks after having Covid. These symptoms can include:
- Joint or muscle aches and pain (myalgia)
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Shortness of breath (breathlessness)
- Depression and anxiety
- Problems with memory and concentration (brain fog)
- Chest pains or tightness
- Heart palpitations
- Loss of taste and smell
With a growing number of employees now affected, the impact of Long Covid on the ability of people to work is becoming increasingly apparent. A recent study by the TUC showed the extent of sick leave taken by one in six (18%) employees affected by Long Covid triggered absence management or HR processes. Half of those were told there would be negative consequences if they took more sick leave, causing one in twenty (5%) to lose their job.
Much as those struggling with the condition would like to ‘snap out of it’, individuals who constantly push themselves past their limits will struggle to recover. Instead, a supportive employer, adjustments to working conditions and a recovery plan is essential to retaining and rehabilitating talent. Read this month’s blog for our top tips on how to achieve this.
Three ways to help employees affected by Long Covid recover:
1. Take a proactive approach
The problem of Long Covid is not going away, especially where employees first caught Covid through work. Several countries, including Canada, France and Germany, now recognise Long Covid as an occupational disease (a health disorder caused by working conditions) and have started to compensate those unable to continue working, especially in the healthcare sector.
With the British Medical Association (BMA) calling for Long Covid to be made an occupational disease in the UK, the sooner you can create a proactive action plan to start rehabilitating those affected, the better. Start by taking stock of the problem and encouraging those affected to come forward for support.
People will be understandably concerned that admitting they’re struggling with residual symptoms might put their job at risk, so reassure them that you’re aware of the extent of the problem and want to help them recover. This will not only help to reduce sickness absence in future but also help with attracting and retaining employees in general, as two-thirds of employees are more loyal when they feel they that they are working for a caring employer.
2. Encourage management referrals
One of the biggest challenges associated with helping people to recover from Long Covid, is the sheer range of symptoms. The support needed by someone who ran for miles every day, but now can’t walk without getting breathless, will be very different to that of someone who is very overweight and experiencing extreme post-viral joint pain.
Some women with Long Covid might delay getting support if they mistakenly think they’re entering menopause, due to the similarity of some symptoms, such as fatigue and brain fog. Others, who might have been struggling with symptoms for a while, might think they can’t come forward for help until they’ve been affected for over 12 weeks.
Instead of being prescriptive about what Long Covid is or demand Long Covid diagnosis certificates (which most people don’t want to be labelled with and GPs are reluctant to provide) encourage managers to refer anyone who has residual symptoms to your occupational health provider. They can then be assessed by an OH clinician who can take stock of their symptoms and impact of this on their ability to do their job.
3. Consider investing in rehabilitation
In addition to making workplace adjustments, many employees might also need help to recover. Unlike other conditions which can self-correct over time, most people with Long Covid will need a physiotherapy or work-hardening treatment plan. This will need to be designed to help them rebuild their resilience back up, whether this is provided through a workplace OH programme or the NHS.
In the case where someone was intubated and experienced muscle wastage, this treatment plan could include sessions with a physiotherapist to learn some strengthening exercises. If fatigue or breathlessness is an issue, they can be given breathing retraining and pacing exercises in keeping with the emerging NICE guidelines. This is so they don’t push themselves past their limits to the extent that they undermine their recovery and take a backwards step. They may also need mental health support to deal with brain fog or wellness support on how to get the right nutrition and enough rest for recovery.
Although the NHS is putting in place programmes to support employees affected by Long Covid, the waiting times are significant. Getting an Occupational Health clinician to create a recommended rehabilitation plan, including workplace adjustments, such as allowing the person to continue working from home, if they are easily fatigued could be very worthwhile. So far, our Long Covid rehabilitation programme has helped over 80% of individuals to recover enough to return to or remain in work.