As more information emerges about the long-term health problems caused to some sufferers of Covid-19, employment lawyer Owen John examines what employers need to do in order to support employees who are affected by “long Covid”.
It is now established that symptoms of long Covid can vary in severity, from an ongoing loss of taste or smell to lung problems and difficulty breathing. A recent study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists also found that people who have suffered severe symptoms from Covid-19, particularly those who spent time in hospital, are at greater risk of developing trauma-related mental health conditions.
From an employment law perspective, physical or mental impairments which severely affect employees for longer than 12 months, or are likely to last that long, may be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This gives rise to a legal duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to support those staff. Even where a condition would not qualify as a disability, employers also owe a general duty of care to all of their employees.
Symptoms of long Covid may lead to staff needing to take lengthy periods of sickness absence or struggling to work as normal. Employers may be uncertain about how to deal with this given that limited information is currently available about the effects of long Covid and how long they may last.
Proper management of sickness absence and performance issues arising from illness is important from both an employee welfare perspective and in employers’ own interests, as it can prevent sickness absence levels from increasing and help staff retention.
Employers should think about the following in relation to any employees who have long-term symptoms arising out of a Covid infection:
- Communication: Arranging regular welfare meetings will be important in managing absence or performance issues, so that employees have the opportunity to speak frankly to their manager or HR about their illness and recovery. This is also the case for staff who are working from home and may be less likely to disclose that they are struggling.
- Medical advice: Medical advice may be needed to establish the nature of each employee’s condition and how this affects their ability to work.
- Flexibility: Employers should recognise that long Covid is an emerging issue and it is not yet clear how different people may be affected by it differently. Adjustments may be needed to aid employees in their recovery: for example, allowing them to work reduced hours during a phased return to work.
- Legal issues: If, in a worst-case scenario, an employer is considering dismissing an employee who is unable to return to work, or putting them through a capability procedure, then legal advice should be taken to avoid the risk of a discrimination or unfair dismissal claim.