Life after the pandemic, how to manage the COVID fallout – Long COVID

managing long COVID in the office

In this article health and safety solicitor Julia Thomas and Senior Consultant Claire Curtis explore the impact of Long Covid on the workplace and how it should be managed.

We have heard a lot of talks recently about Long COVID. The NHS has now identified two types:

  • Ongoing symptomatic COVID: When COVID symptoms carry on for 4 – 12 weeks.
  • Post-COVID syndrome: When COVID symptoms last more than 12 weeks[1]

The symptoms associated with long COVID include:

  • Breathing and chest problems.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Brain problems for example headaches, delirium, and sleep problems.
  • Stomach problems.
  • Joint and muscle pains.
  • Issues with mood and mental health
  • Ear, nose, and throat problems.
  • Skin rashes.

These can last weeks, months or even years and symptoms can come and go over time and can fluctuate with their intensity.  The symptom list is not exhaustive.  The number of symptoms and the fact that those listed can be attributed to other conditions are indicative of the difficulties which may be faced by health professionals in diagnosing Long COVID.

The world has opened back up and you may be fooled into thinking that COVID has disappeared if you are out and about.  When travelling on the tube there are very few people wearing masks the same goes for in shopping centres and supermarkets.  It is like COVID doesn’t exist.  Statistics from the ONS confirm that infections are on the rise, but it is not possible to know the exact figures.  Not everyone who has covid knows that they do.  The removal of the legal obligation to test and isolate means there are potentially a lot of people with COVID who don’t know that they have it and if they suspect that they might choose not to take a test.

Employers need to be mindful when considering how to manage the potential spread of COVID and any other respiratory disease in the workplace.  Yes, the requirement for COVID-19 risk assessments has been removed but there is still an obligation to protect those who may encounter the virus at work as part of their health and safety obligations.  HSE had its first successful COVID-related prosecution in 2021 which arose from the failure of the duty holder to comply with COVID-related guidance as well as other health and safety obligations.  Although the covid spot checks have gone HSE will still be looking at this as part of the overall management of risks in the workplace and if duty holders are found to lacking then they should expect some sort of action to be taken.  Such action may be advice and guidance in the form of a notification of contravention rather than a prosecution, but this enforcement method will still lead to costs being incurred by the relevant duty holder.

The risk from COVID should be managed in the same way as other respiratory infections.  With the removal of free mass testing knowing who has covid rather than just a common cold or another respiratory infection is more difficult.  A sneeze could still attract suspicious looks and raised eyebrows from others.

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for employers to revisit the measures that they have in place to keep staff fit and well.  Staff wellness is high on the HSE’s agenda so any failures in this regard are bound to be noted during an inspection.

Respiratory infections can spread easily especially in confined spaces, so employers need to know what to consider when managing the risk of a spread.

Measures to consider include:

  • Ventilation

The risk of airborne transmission increases when people are in a crowded place and participating in activities such as talking loudly signing dancing or exercising.  Having adequate ventilation in place is a requirement under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.  There are many guidance documents which can assist employers with this issue for example the HSE and other industry websites.

  • Hygiene practices

Keeping workplaces clean reduces the risk of infection and can reduce sickness in a workforce. Having a cleaning regime with a particular focus on those high-touch areas or areas of high traffic.

Employees should be provided with the tools they need to maintain a clean working environment and keep themselves safe.  For example, providing items such as hand sanitiser, anti-viral wipes, and hand washing facilities in easy-to-access locations will help staff to follow good hygiene practices.

Good hygiene practices should be encouraged and the need to stick to these frequently communicated to employees as part of the workplace safety culture.  As we all learn to live with COVID people will become complacent.  The scary numbers on the 5 pm briefings have long since disappeared and very little is said about covid on the news.  It is easy for the need to maintain good hygiene practices and the need to take notice of any coughs, sneezes, and ill health to be pushed to the back of our minds.

  • Workplace culture

Employers can put in place a wealth of measures but cooperation from their employees is crucial.  Many health and safety failures on the part of a corporate entity or its managers can be linked to a failure to promote and/or enforce a good safety culture within the workplace.

Staff should be educated on what to look for, for example, the symptoms associated with the onset of covid or the flu because as said before these are very similar.

Staff should be advised on what support is available if they are unwell.

Government guidance states employers should encourage workers to get vaccinated if they have not done so already.  Any attempts at this should be done in a sensitive way with consideration for potential cultural beliefs relating to vaccination.

Employees must play their part too and be aware of their obligations under health and safety laws.  Section 7 imposes a duty on employees to take reasonable care of their own and their co-worker’s health and safety.  There is also a duty to co-operate with employers.  So, employees need to adhere to the policies and procedures which are put in place to keep them safe.

If you have an employee who has been diagnosed with Long COVID a reassessment of their needs and what is required to keep them safe at work will need to be undertaken. There is scope for an employee with Long COVID to be classified as disabled by a tribunal, but this will be judged on a case-by-case basis there is no one size fits all approach that can be adopted[2].  As it will be difficult for an employer to determine whether an employee is disabled in the event of a claim, employers should consider what reasonable adjustments could be put in place to assist the employee with continuing to work.

How can employers help to support employees with Long COVID? 

Employers should be aware that the effects of Long COVID can come and go. On some days the person might seem well, but on others, their symptoms can be worse, and they might need to be off work again.

If someone is off sick, they might feel isolated or need support to return to work.  Employers should:

  • agree on how and when to make contact during any absence.
  • make sure their work is covered and shared out appropriately while they’re off.
  • talk about ways to support them as they return to work where and when possible.

The employer should talk with the employee about any support they may need to return to work.  They could discuss:

  • getting an occupational health assessment.
  • making changes to the workplace or to how the employee works, such as different working hours.
  • a phased return to work.
  • what they want to tell others at work about their illness.

Finch can assist you with a review of risk assessments and give helpful advice on how to manage workplace risks.  If you do require any assistance, please contact us at [email protected] or 01530 412777.

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[2] There is already one reported case where this has happened (Burke v Turning Point Scotland ETS/4112457/2021) and is likely to be more to follow.

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