When we first wrote about Long Covid back in October 2021, being a relatively new condition, there were few cases of a patient suffering from Long Covid for 12 months or more. As time has passed, increasing numbers have succumbed to this debilitating condition and more is now known about its impact on sufferers and their likely prognosis.
We set out below what key information employers need to know about Long Covid.
Significant proportion of UK population suspected of having Long Covid
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that around 2% of the UK population is experiencing self-reported symptoms of Long Covid (defined as symptoms persisting for more than four weeks after initial suspected COVID-19 infection that were not explained by something else). 40% of those with self-reported Long Covid have now suffered with the condition for 12 months or longer and 64% report that the condition has a significant impact on their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities. Fatigue continues to be the most common symptom of Long Covid (affecting 51%), with shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating also impacting large numbers.
Many cases of Long Covid likely to qualify as a disability
Disabled employees are protected from discrimination and harassment under the Equality Act 2010, and employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees who are placed at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability. For a condition to qualify as a “disability” under the Equality Act, it must have a substantial and long-term effect on the individual’s day-to-day activities. "Long-term" means it has lasted at least 12 months or is likely to do so. Given the data collated by the ONS, it seems likely that many cases of Long Covid will meet the definition of disability; however, each case should be considered individually and employers should seek specialist medical advice about the effect of symptoms and likely prognosis.
Challenge of managing employees with Long Covid
Long Covid is a particularly difficult condition for employers to manage due to its relapsing nature. Those suffering from Long Covid may appear well for lengthy periods and then suffer a relapse, requiring time off work, before returning again before another relapse. The other challenge facing employers is the lack of a concrete diagnosis: a patient could be diagnosed with Long Covid if they have one or more of a range of symptoms, which cannot otherwise be explained by another medical condition. There is, therefore, scope for misdiagnosis and, by way of example, many suspect that women experiencing the menopause have been mistakenly diagnosed as suffering from Long Covid. Given that it is still a relatively unknown condition, the medical profession is largely in the dark about how Long Covid impacts sufferers and how the condition develops.
Risk of malingerers falsely claiming to have Long Covid
The broad range of symptoms and lack of concrete diagnosis, together with extensive media coverage, means that there is a higher risk of malingerers using Long Covid as an excuse to take time off work or for poor performance. The problem may be exacerbated by remote working, where face-to-face contact between employee and manager may be limited. Employers will need to ensure that their absence management procedures are sufficiently robust to wheedle out any malingerers, and adapted to a remote working environment (if appropriate), while being supportive of legitimate cases. Specialist medical advice is likely to be critical in this context.
Need for thorough review of policies and procedures
Employers should be sensitive to the impact of Long Covid on mental health and put in place procedures to identify and assist those requiring additional support. Sickness absence policies should be updated and managers provided with training to help them manage and support those suffering from Long Covid, and to identify and appropriately manage suspected malingerers. Employers should seek legal advice before taking action against somebody who is potentially suffering from Long Covid, given the risk that the individual may qualify for protection under the Equality Act. This may be because their Long Covid meets the definition of a disability, but also because certain protected groups are more susceptible to Long Covid (such as women and those suffering from an underlying disability) and so an individual may qualify for protection due to another medical condition or protected characteristic.