The statistics on the prevalence of Post-COVID Syndrome, commonly known as long COVID, are continuing to evolve, with the Office of National Statistics estimating that 300,000 people in the UK were affected at the end of January 2021. Other studies are suggesting that 76% of hospitalised patients had ongoing symptoms 6 months later and 35- 50% of non-hospitalised patients experiencing symptoms 2 – 4 months later.
As this will inevitably increase, it’s likely to have a significant impact on small employers, small business owners and the self-employed, as many thousands of people are likely to suffer with long-term symptoms affecting their ability to work.
In a recent webinar, Christine Husbands from FSB Care and Hannah Thomas from FSB Employment Protection answered your most frequently asked questions about long COVID and its impact on health and employment.
You can watch a replay of the event below or read on for a summary of the issues they discussed.
What is long COVID and what are the symptoms?
Whilst the official definition of long COVID is symptoms continuing for 12 weeks or more following recovery from coronavirus, many people are experiencing symptoms for shorter periods. The symptoms, which often occur in clusters, can fluctuate and re-occur over time and affect every area of the body include:
- chronic fatigue
- cognitive blurring
- muscle pain
- mobility problems
- effects of organ damage
- psychological and emotional
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has also raised concerns about the potentially huge psychological impact of the condition.
Long COVID can affect anyone infected with the COVID-19 virus, regardless of whether they were critically ill or only had mild symptoms, previously clinically vulnerable or fit and healthy, young or old. The NHS has a dedicated website with support and guidance for the long-term impacts of recovering from COVID-19.
I’m self-employed and suffering with long COVID. What can I do?
If you’re unable to work or are struggling with symptoms in your daily life, it can be distressing, especially if you’re working for yourself. You’re not alone - FSB Care has experience of supporting members with long COVID.
In the webinar, FSB Dave Sharpe shared his experience of dealing with long COVID alongside running his own business, as well as the support he’s received from FSB Care.
How might long COVID affect my employees as a small business?
“As a new multi-system disease, the impact is still unknown, but given the large numbers of people likely to be affected together with the complexities of multiple long-term fluctuating symptoms, employee absence due to ill health is likely to increase,” says Christine Husbands, FSB Care.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, employees may need to take time off work as long-term sick leave. Alternatively, employees who are well enough to return to work in some capacity may require temporary adjustments to their work role, working hours or place of work (such as incorporating periods of homeworking).
What can I do if my employee has long COVID?
“Adjustments to the employee’s work or work pattern may be required from a practical viewpoint and under health and safety legislation to help employees manage the impact of the varying physical and/or mental symptoms of long COVID on their work life,” says Hannah Thomas, FSB Employment Protection.
Where long COVID symptoms are variable and fluctuating, any required adjustments will need to be tailored to the employee’s specific needs at that particular time and on a case by case basis, with the flexibility to adapt arrangements as necessary where the employee experiences relapses or improvements and by keeping the agreed adjustments under review.
“In this webinar, we provided guidance on how this can be achieved,” says Hannah. “We looked at statutory sick pay entitlements and arranging temporary staff cover or reorganising work among existing staff to cover sickness absences. We also considered the employer’s options where an employee may be incapacitated for work in the long term.”
Where small business owners are affected by long COVID themselves, a business contingency plan should be put in place where possible.
Is long COVID considered a disability? What impact will this have on The Equality Act 2010?
A disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 for employment law purposes as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out their normal day-to-day activities. Where an employee is disabled, employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for those employees in the workplace and not to discriminate due to the individual’s disability.
Although we are in the infancy of understanding what long COVID is from a medical perspective, we have a large body of caselaw that has established what amounts to disability from an employment law perspective in interpreting the legal definition. We look at some of the existing caselaw to understand when long COVID may amount to a disability and how the Equality Act 2010 may apply to employer’s duties in relation to long COVID.
How can you make sure that your employees with long COVID have access to the help and support they need to manage the symptoms and recover as quickly as possible?
There are many symptoms of long COVID and the fluctuating multi-symptom, multi-system nature of this condition will be very complex for individuals to manage effectively themselves.
“This is clearly an emerging situation and one which is likely to be challenging for employers, in terms of providing support for those with this new relatively unknown condition and its long-term implications,” says Christine.
Christine also stresses the importance of “practical help and emotional support” during this time. “The ability to rely on close family, friends or work colleagues for support during times of ill health has been taken away from many people, leaving them to cope with their symptoms in isolation and in desperate need of human support.”
FSB Care’s registered nurses have many years’ experience in supporting people with long-term chronic conditions and bring a long-term co-ordinated approach signposting to benefits and services when appropriate.
Through regular phone calls, providing flexible help and advice to deal with all the symptoms and implications such as:
- managing the fluctuating symptoms and their impact
- dealing with the psychological impact
- managing long-term fatigue
- guidance on breathing exercises and physical activity
- nutrition and dietary advice
- Family and relationship implications
- signposting to relevant medical services (NHS, Employer benefits e.g. PMI, EAP) or sourcing those not available.
- Making a sustained return to work
- Research on behalf of the employee
- Provision of targeted literature
Where can I find more support?
An illustration of how FSB Care helps people with long COVID is available on the FSB Care hub.
FSB Care is free for charge to FSB members and can be extended to an employee for a fixed fee, giving them a dedicated nurse to support them every step of the way.
FSB Employment Protection
FSB members have access to the FSB Legal Hub, which contains template documents and guidance on managing employees’ ill-health and sick pay entitlements, as well as other business issues. Members also have access to the 24/7 legal and HR advice line, staffed by qualified lawyers.