Having long-lasting symptoms after Covid-19 is dubbed "long Covid" or "long-haul Covid". Employers should be taking note of how this will affect worker productivity and medical incapacity in the workplace, say Anton Engelbrecht, Alexander Forbes Senior Health Risk Consultant and Myrna Sachs, Head of Alexander Forbes Health Management Solutions.
Usually Covid-19 symptoms last two weeks for a mild infection and up to six weeks in a severe case. If your symptoms persist or you develop new symptoms relating to SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, then you have long Covid.
Long Covid may linger three months or more after isolation has ended. This may affect an employee's overall work performance and their extended medical incapacity, disability claim or both.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), long Covid symptoms may be consistent or fluctuate. Symptoms include:
- fatigue, a cough and shortness of breath
- inflammation and injury to the lungs or heart
- damage to the nervous system
Based on WHO presentations, symptoms which linger beyond two weeks and up to six weeks should raise concern around the possibility of long Covid. Symptoms that persist beyond six weeks should be considered as long Covid.
Medical journal The Lancet stated that one in five people with Covid-19 had persisting symptoms for more than five weeks, and one in ten had symptoms for longer than 12 weeks.
What employers need to consider
Adopt a holistic approach across all health intervention service providers, including occupational health, absenteeism and incapacity investigation, and employee assistance programme support. Help employees return to work through work accommodation and a graded process.
Calling or arranging an online meeting with the individual helps to find out:
- the symptoms and how these affect their productivity
- whether the employee is being accommodated or needs to be accommodated at work
- about follow-up appointments with the treating doctor
Follow this process:
- Human Resources submits a signed consent form and provides contact details of the individual and a family member
- The health risk manager:
o contacts the individual or family member to find out what the medical condition is (hospitalisation, self-isolation, symptoms)
o follows up regularly with the individual on how their medical condition is progressing
o establishes whether they will require any reasonable accommodations when they reintegrate back to work
- With long Covid cases, initiate a referral for an incapacity investigation to find out whether the individual can fully perform the duties of their own occupation (contact with the treating doctor, specialist, physiotherapist may be necessary)
- Depending on the outcome, make further referrals to:
o extended sick leave
o disability application
o chronic disease management with medical aid
o fitness for work or return to work programme
o ergonomic assessments
- Approach each case in light of the varying symptoms every individual presents with.
Employee wellbeing benefits from monitoring long Covid cases
Because long Covid is not common knowledge, many people could experience persisting symptoms and not understand what is happening. This, in turn, could mean that they downplay the condition, affecting their wellbeing and ability to cope in the workplace.
A manager may use early intervention to address concerns about an employee's performance. They could arrange a check-in on the phone or online and discuss the employee's general wellbeing and functioning and offer support. Support offered can help with short-term difficulties and longer-term management and further referral for medical intervention as part of an integrated approach.
Cross-referral between the employee assistance programme and the company's relevant medical scheme allows an integrated and holistic approach. This supports employees and prevents long Covid from becoming the biggest return-to-work challenge yet for occupational health.