Managing Employees with Long Covid – Is it the next great unknown?
You may have heard my interview last week on BBC Radio Kent about how to handle employees with Long Covid. It’s certainly a hot topic at the moment and is likely to have a significant impact on workforce management. Here are a few comments and pointers which may be useful but do seek professional advice early on if it becomes an issue for your business.
What is Long Covid?
It has recently been reported that over 110,000 workers are currently suffering from “post-Covid syndrome”, commonly known as “Long Covid”. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have defined this 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.”
ACAS recently published guidance encouraging employers to treat Long Covid like any other illness, but we consider this advice to be a potentially risky stance for employers to follow. Long Covid is not like other serious illnesses routinely managed by HR, as the symptoms can vary greatly ranging from breathlessness to depression to organ damage and medical professionals disagree in their opinion over its prognosis.
This makes life difficult for employers managing employees who are on long-term or intermittent short-term sick leave because of Long Covid as they often need to obtain clear medical evidence on which to base their decisions. In the circumstances these decisions may include whether a dismissal for ill-health capability would be fair and if the duty to make reasonable adjustments has arisen because the illness amounts to a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.
Is Long Covid a disability?
The TUC has called for Long Covid to be recognised as a ‘deemed disability’ but this has not been taken up by the Government. On 7 May 2022, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) sent a Tweet stating that “without case law or scientific consensus, EHRC does not recommend that ‘long Covid’ be treated as a disability.” After support groups and the TUC expressed concerns over this Tweet, the EHRC published a clarificatory statement saying that although Long Covid is not currently a condition which automatically constitutes a disability under the Equality Act 2010, if a person’s symptoms have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, then it may amount to a disability and that this should be determined by an employment tribunal in the usual way.
Practical steps to support employees
Whilst the uncertainty in the medical evidence makes it difficult for employers to make informed decisions about the type of adjustments that may be appropriate to support employees suffering with Long Covid, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken.
Practical steps could include the following:
- Build your HR team’s or Manager’s knowledge about Long Covid. This will help them to treat affected employees with sensitivity. The Royal College of Physicians has released guidance on Long Covid for employers and managers.
- Maintain open lines of communication and encourage employees to speak to managers or HR if they are struggling by having regular catch-ups to understand their symptoms and their needs and support them to maintain good levels of performance.
- Seek medical advice from occupational health who is best placed to determine an individual’s prognosis and provide helpful advice on a case-by-case basis.
- Be wary of Covid fatigue and take it into account in any management strategy. Long Covid is a potentially chronic condition and therefore HR need to be able to put in place long-term solutions to support individuals over an indefinite period.
- Be flexible and innovative in the way in which you provide adjustments and keep up to date with the latest thinking on Long Covid as it remains an emerging issue and much still remains unknown.
For advice or further information on how to handle employees with Long Covid and avoid potential employment tribunal claims, call Henry Doswell of Doswell Law Solicitors on 01233 722942. Alternatively, email Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Whilst every reasonable effort is made to make the information and commentary contained in this blog accurate and up to date, Henry Doswell takes no responsibility for its accuracy and correctness, or for any consequences of relying on it. The information and commentary in this blog does not constitute legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. You are strongly advised to obtain specific, personal advice from a lawyer about your case or matter.