Long COVID: What it is and How to Deal with it

In a recent case, an employee was not said to have been dismissed unfairly, despite claiming that she had long COVID symptoms. The tribunal found that she had no symptoms of long COVID during her dismissal, as they only developed 6 weeks later.  Judge Sutherland also said that long COVID is not common and not everyone who has COVID is at risk of it.

While the above is true, it is still a very real possibility for ex-COVID patients. And judging by the decision taken above, time is everything. For both employees and employers, long COVID is something to be aware of to keep the workplace running smoothly.

All of this begs the question— what is long COVID? How are employers expected to deal with it?

What is Long COVID?

Long COVID is described as the onset of certain COVID symptoms AFTER someone has already suffered from COVID. There is no fixed definition for it, but rather, an understanding that any symptoms/side effects that persist are “long COVID”. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) say that it is said to be long COVID or “post COVID-19 syndrome” when symptoms last more than 12 weeks.

Much like COVID, the symptoms of long COVID are pretty much the same. It includes but is not limited to:

  • Breathlessness
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Delirium in older populations
  • Nasal congestion

While more than 12 weeks is what NICE stipulates, there is no end limit to how long it can last. So once anyone experiences symptoms for more than 12 weeks, it can go on for months.

Can It Be Considered a Disability?

One of the biggest questions since long COVID has become a talked about topic is whether it is a disability. According to the Equality Act 2010, discrimination against disabled people is prohibited. This protection is extended to the workplace as well. Under this protection, disabled people are described as anyone with a physical or mental impairment. Keeping this in mind, the Employment Tribunal does see it as a disability (Burke v Turning Point Scotland). However, it does not fall perfectly in the disability definition as employers need to consider a few points.

First, and perhaps the easiest, is to see whether the long COVID symptom is a physical or mental impairment. Secondly, and this is where it gets tricky, they need to see if the impairment is long-term. COVID-19 is not considered a disability because the symptoms do not last more than four weeks. However, with long COVID if the symptoms are likely to last longer than a few months, it can be seen as a disability.

As an employer, it is crucial to not hold the 12-month long period as written in stone and rather observe over a considerable period. If an employee with long COVID symptoms is showing no signs of improvement over a couple of months, it is safe to treat it as a disability.

Navigating Through Long Covid

1. As an employer

The first and most important thing to do here is to treat the employee with compassion. Be sympathetic and work with them to understand the extent of their condition. If an employee feels they have long COVID, deep dive into how long they have been suffering and handle the situation sensitively.

The best form of support that you can provide to a suffering employee is an updated sickness policy. Make sure that your company’s sickness policies cover long COVID, and that everyone is made aware. It will also help to offer non-monetary support such as catch-up calls and virtual meetings that might make the employee feel less isolated.

However, be mindful to not overburden the employee with work. While they may want to feel involved, it’s best to ensure their work is shared. All in all, it’s best to communicate with them openly and see how they need support.

2. As an employee

If you are an employee and have been diagnosed with long COVID, your condition can be treated as a disability. This ensures you will not be discriminated against or treated less favourably in the workplace.

It is important to remember that your employee can dismiss you from your job, but they will have to do so fairly. Plus, this is only the case if there is no scope for you to return to work despite reasonable adjustments.

If you can return to work, ideally, you should be entitled to sick leave and entitled pay. Make sure to have open communication with your employer to see how they can reasonably support you.  In the event of unfair dismissal or a deduction in pay due to long COVID, you should get in touch with employment law specialists.