“Long Covid” (or “post-Covid-19 syndrome”) is a condition where people who have contracted Covid-19 continue to experience symptoms for weeks or even months after their initial infection. It affects individuals differently, and symptoms can range from fatigue, headaches, loss of taste or smell, lasting fever or anxiety, to respiratory difficulties, muscle weakness, blood clots and even organ damage.
The Office for National Statistics in the UK reported in April 2021 that an estimated 1.1 million people in the UK had symptoms associated with long Covid, with over two-thirds of these individuals having had (or suspected to have had) Covid-19 at least 12 weeks earlier. Furthermore, an estimated 674,000 people reported that their symptoms negatively impacted on their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities.
This high prevalence of long Covid is creating challenges for employers: there is a potential increase in employees on long-term sick leave; and added difficulties in facilitating employees’ return to work programmes given symptoms can vary and fluctuate over time. It is a good idea to review any polices around sickness absence and return to work plans to ensure that they are fit for purpose and provide a degree of flexibility to address individual experiences with long Covid. Employers may consider monitoring sickness absences to identify any employees who may be suffering from long Covid. Such employees may benefit from an assessment by occupational health or a referral to employee assistance programmes. Employers should speak with employees who are diagnosed with long Covid to understand how the illness is affecting them and the impact it may be having on their work, and what support the employer can provide. Employers should also review the makeup of their workforce and identify any gaps in skillsets that might be exacerbated by long-term absences.
Employers also need to be aware that employees who are suffering from long Covid may be considered as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010, depending on the severity and duration of the symptoms. For long Covid to qualify as a disability, the employee will need to show that the condition has a long-term negative effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Long-term means 12 months or longer and, given the long-term impact of Covid-19 is still largely unknown, this is currently difficult to prove in respect of long Covid. If long Covid were to be classed as a disability under the Equality Act, and an employer were to treat an employee with long Covid less favourably because, for example, they are unable to fulfil the requirements of the role or have had long periods of sickness absence, such treatment could amount to disability discrimination (for which damages are uncapped). Employers also have an obligation to consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to alleviate any difficulties a disabled employee may be experiencing. For employees with long Covid, this could include, for example, changing the type of work or working hours to provide time to rest and recover throughout the day or allowing employees to continue working from home after lockdown restrictions have been lifted.
As well as disability discrimination, potential claims could arise in relation to other protected characteristics. Research has found that long Covid more severely effects older people, people with other pre-existing conditions (such as asthma), ethnic minorities and women. Employers must therefore take care to avoid claims of sex, age or race discrimination.
While there is still more to learn regarding the symptoms and impact of long Covid, employers can be taking steps to review their absence management policies and checking the terms of any permanent health insurance policies to confirm whether employees with long Covid will be covered.