If an employee is indeed deemed to be disabled then it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure it acts appropriately and that the employee is not being placed at a disadvantage in the workplace. If the employee is experiencing a disadvantage, perhaps unable to work a full-time working week or feeling easily exhausted, then it will be the responsibility of the employer to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate an employee’s return to work.
Those found to not be doing so may be in breach of discrimination legislation and could face costly claims in an employment tribunal.
However, as there are still so many unknown factors surrounding long Covid and its long-term effects on the human body, employers are unlikely to receive any conclusive answer about whether those suffering from long Covid are actually disabled.
The conciliation service Acas is therefore recommending employers shift their focus away from whether long Covid is, in fact, a disability, and concentrate instead on managing potential absences, or making reasonable adjustments so that those with the condition will be able to continue in their work.
From what little we know about long Covid, it can affect each individual very differently. We can therefore be relatively sure employers will need to prepare themselves to tackle short, intermittent absences as well as prolonged ones. These absences should be treated no differently than if they were the result of any other chronic illness.
As an employer, your priority should be to discuss how you can best support your employee’s return to work when they are fit to do so. The steps to be taken by the employer will depend on the symptoms and difficulties their employee is experiencing.
For example, this might be looking at different working hours, more regular breaks or a phased return to work. However, employers will need to ensure that any changes being considered should only be implemented with the consent of the employee and, if possible, with the support of medical or occupational health advice.
If there are any genuine concerns as to whether the employee concerned has the capacity to return to work at all, it may be appropriate to begin a formal capability procedure, which could result in the termination of their employment. However, this should always be the last resort after all other options have been explored.
How employers manage an employee’s absence and maintain good employee relations despite potential ongoing absences is likely to differ depending on the circumstances. Employers will need to give consideration to additional actions they can take, including:
- Agreeing when and how contact should be made during the absence;
- Deciding how details of the illness and the employee’s wellbeing are communicated to the wider team;
- Ongoing reviews of the employee’s condition.
Although the past year has altered the ways in which a management team interacts with its workforce, the emerging situation with long Covid should be treated with the same level of agility and common sense that most businesses have now become accustomed to. Taking a pragmatic and fluid approach at this point could encourage a smoother return to the workplace, and result in better employee relationships overall.