Our favourite regular columnist, Steve Herbert, talks about the impact of Long Covid and why employers must be aware of it.
It’s been almost half a year since I last wrote about the medical condition now known as Long Covid in my Employer News column. Yet the passage of time since that article has provided much new evidence to suggest that this issue might well dominate the workplace health agenda for many months – or perhaps even years – to come.
So, as the national COVID-19 infection and death rates start to recede, now seems like an opportune moment to bring readers up to date with this increasingly important (yet still under-reported) topic, and provide some signposting to the support options that employers might use to assist their employees both now and in the future.
How common is Long Covid?
As I covered in my earlier post, COVID-19 has often been characterised in the national media as a condition with just the binary outcome of life or death alone. Yet there is now an increasing awareness that a third outcome – Long Covid – is also a significant risk long after the initial infection has subsided.
Indeed Long Covid is a far more common outcome than most people currently believe. Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, recently suggested that each Covid related death;
“represents probably four or five people who survive but are damaged by Covid.”
And the Office for National Statistics (ONS), has found that around 1 in 10 respondents testing positive for COVID-19 exhibit symptoms for a period of 12 weeks or longer.
It is also important to note that Long Covid is not necessarily correlated to the usual COVID-19 mortality risk factors. Age, health, and severity of initial infection are no indicators as to who will suffer from the longer form of the illness. Indeed there have already been some notable cases of young and previously extremely healthy individuals who have seen their life change dramatically as a result of Long Covid, and it follows that this may well become a lasting problem for many in the nation’s working age population, and by extension their employers also.
So what is Long Covid?
Yet Long Covid is very difficult to categorise or even accurately describe.
The range of symptoms attributed to Long Covid is already vast, and is continuing to grow. Layla Moran MP – Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus – suggested on Radio 4’s Today programme last month that Long Covid conditions include an astonishing 205 different identified symptoms so far.
And there is also a concern around the “fluctuating” nature of the symptoms experienced. To quote directly from a report issued by National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) last year:
“People expected the abatement of one symptom was the “end” of their Covid19 experience and were devastated when a new symptom appeared”
“The biggest challenge for many was not the individual symptoms, but their unpredictability and their dashed hopes of recovery after a few good days”
Limited experience of Long Covid
Of course it remains far too early in the world’s experience of Long Covid to know what the average duration of these longer-term symptoms might actually be, or indeed how many of the nation’s working age population will ultimately be impacted. But it does seem sadly inevitable that at least a few people may never truly return to their pre-pandemic level of health.
Which is one of the reasons why the APPG on Coronavirus is calling for Long Covid to be formally classed as an “Occupational Disease”. Such a step has already been taken by other nations, including Germany, Belgium and Denmark.
Employers should be taking action now
But regardless of the national stance on this issue, it would make sense for employers to understand the potential risks, and to plan how they will support any workers that are absent because of Long Covid conditions.
It naturally follows that employers should ensure that all the elements of their health-related Employee Benefits offerings are fit for purpose, well promoted, and utilised as and when needed too. Please follow this link for coverage of a recent press release from my colleagues at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing (and our group’s personal nurse support service, RedArc) outlining some of the tools that employers can utilise and promote in this respect.
The reality is that Long Covid has the potential to still be with the nation’s employers and their employees long after the worst of the COVID-19 crisis has subsided. So it follows that it’s high time for employers to react to this new risk and build a robust support strategy to assist those employees who suffer from this relatively new, but very debilitating, condition.
Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing