How to deal with an employee with long Covid

How to deal with an employee with long Covid
Pexels/Uriel Mont

Currently in the UK an estimated 1 in 10 people who have contracted Covid-19 will go on to experience further debilitating symptoms over 12 weeks after the initial infection.

Commonly known as 'long Covid', there is very little known about why this condition only affects some, or for that matter the extent to which it affects them.

What we do know is that long Covid can seriously diminish the quality of life of those suffering from it, with symptoms varying in severity on a day-to-day basis, much like a chronic illness.

This can make the performance of even the most basic, everyday tasks a challenge, and leaves huge question marks as to a sufferer’s ability to work.

This is likely to be at the forefront of many employers’ minds as the country begins to make plans to welcome staff back into the workplace following a lengthy absence, whether that be due to furlough or flexible working.

But with more than 1m people reported to be experiencing long Covid symptoms in the month leading up to March 2021, guidance is needed with regards to how long Covid is classified and what the key considerations will be for employees and employers alike.

How do we classify a disability?

While there is no universally accepted definition of long Covid, the NHS notes that sufferers often experience a broad range of symptoms for up to six months after initial infection, including chest and joint pain, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, memory problems, depression and a high temperature; although exact time frames are as yet unquantifiable given the unprecedented nature of the illness.

What is apparent is that long-Covid will have a significant effect on an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing, and that employers should be prepared for the fact that many employees experiencing symptoms are likely to be classed as disabled for the purpose of employment law.

Those with a “physical or mental impairment” that has a “substantial” and “long-term” adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities will be disabled under the Equality Act 2010. It is already apparent that long Covid has the potential to be an impairment that has a substantial effect on an individual’s day-to-day activities.

On the other hand, “long-term” refers to an impairment that has lasted or will last for at least 12 months or is likely to come and go over time. Not enough time has passed, or research undertaken, for it to be conclusively determined that long Covid will regularly be a long-term impairment. However, it appears there will be individual cases where this is a clear possibility.

It therefore seems logical that those afflicted by long Covid be treated as if they are potentially disabled for employment law purposes. This will not be true in all cases, however, and it will likely depend on individual employees and their specific circumstances, particularly the severity of their symptoms and the length of time they are likely to suffer with those symptoms.