The impact of Long Covid in the workplace

Flu symptoms, body aches, fatigue and an inability to smell were the first signs of Thandi’s Covid infection in May last year. Even without the positive test result, she knew she’d been hit hard by the virus. She describes the fatigue as “next level”, turning simple daily activities like showering, dressing and walking around her home into tasks requiring momentous effort. The pain in her joints and muscles made every waking hour difficult.

“Everything hurts − your muscles, your joints, everything,”‘ says Thandi. The pain and the severe shortness of breath and chronic coughing left her unable to work.

Back in May 2020, doctors knew that Covid could make you sick for a week or two, so Thandi took two weeks’ sick leave and rested. At the end of that period, her symptoms were no better. Still unable to return to her job at the large legal firm she works for, she took another two weeks off to give her weakened body more time to heal.

At the end of her fourth week of sick leave, still suffering terrible muscle and joint pain, fatigue and shortness of breath, Thandi had to  return to work. She had no sick leave left.

At this point, she had no idea that her battle withCovid-19 – had only just begun. 

What is Long Covid?

“Long Covid” is not a medical term. It’s actually a patient-created term first used on social media in May 2020 after which it was widely adopted. It refers to the duration of time a person suffers with debilitating symptoms caused by Covid-19. Those who are still experiencing symptoms three months after testing positive, are said to have Long Covid. They’re also increasingly known as “long-haulers”.

“76% of Covid-19 patients who were hospitalised in Wuhan, China, still had at least one symptom six months after getting sick.”

According to the Independent, the condition is more prevalent than first thought, with one in 10 patients experiencing debilitating symptoms three months after infection. The newspaper reports that “many were also suffering from poor quality of life compared to the rest of the population – struggling to carry out daily tasks such as washing, dressing or working.

Business Insider South Africa recently shared data from a study published in The Lancet, which found that “76% of Covid-19 patients who were hospitalised in Wuhan, China, still had at least one symptom six months after getting sick”. This trend appears to be emerging across the world.

The physical and emotional toll

One reasons Covid-19 patients may be so debilitating is because the immune system goes into overdrive. This reaction can cause damage to a number of vital organs, including the kidneys, brain, lungs and heart. But the damage is not only physical.

The inability to perform basic tasks is both depressing and frustrating. Thandi shares that she carries an enormous burden of guilt because she’s no longer able to do much of the housework or childcare. Her husband Chris, who also works full-time, now does the lion’s share.

Survivor’s guilt is another burden she carries. Thandi says: “People are dying every day, and you ‘made it through’. People expect you to be happy and making the most of every day after your ordeal. When they ask how you’re feeling, you don’t feel able to tell the truth – that you are suffering – because you know people expect you to feel so grateful. You can’t complain that you are in pain and don’t have enough energy to make it through a shower without having to take a rest to catch your breath.”

For Long Covid patients, there is no “after the ordeal”. They are living it for months after their positive test and it affects their lives personally and professionally.

What does this mean for employers?

The difficulty for everyone is that there is no data on how long these symptoms will affect an employee’s ability to do their job.

An article by UK-based commercial lawyer Makbool Javaid for The HR Director states: “Employers with staff who are suffering from Long Covid should be mindful of the possibility that they may have a disability, depending on the severity and duration of the effects. This means that treating a Long Covid sufferer less favourably because they have Long Covid or, for example, have high levels of sickness absence or are unable to fully fulfil the requirements of their role, could amount to direct disability discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability.

“For employees with Long Covid, potential adjustments might, for instance, include adjusting working hours or allowing individuals to continue working from home after lockdown.”

“…treating a Long Covid sufferer less favourably because they have Long Covid or, for example, have high levels of sickness absence or are unable to fully fulfil the requirements of their role, could amount to direct disability discrimination or discrimination arising from a disability.”

Could Long Covid be classified a disability under the terms of the South African Employment Equity Act?

Long Covid is now a medical condition, but it is not yet classified as a disability because there is no data on just how long patients will experience symptoms. Scientists are collecting the data in real time, and so only time will give us the information we need.

The Employment Equity Act states that “people with disabilities are those who have a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment”.

Criteria for determining if a person has a disability

According the the SAHRC Disability Toolkit, “the Department of Labour’s Technical Assistance Guideline (TAG) outlines three basic qualifying criteria to determine if a person has a disability. There must be an impairment, the impairment must be substantially limiting, and the impairment must be long-term or recurring.

Considering these three criteria, Long Covid seems to meet the first and second, but, we will only know how long-term or recurring the condition is in the months and years to come. But until then, here are some steps employees and employers can take to enable those with Long Covid to remain in the workforce.

What employees should do

  1. Get tested if you feel unwell or even if you are sure you have the virus. If you don’t have a positive test result, you may find yourself unable to claim benefits or adequate sick leave in the future.
  2. Be honest with your employer about your positive test result immediately, and self isolate.
  3. Let your HR department know if some symptoms remain beyond the first month and ensure that you get a doctor’s note if you need to take more time off.
  4. If your symptoms persist, talk to your HR department about the possibility of working fewer hours or working from home so that you rest when you need it and catch up the hours when you feel stronger.

What employers should do

  1. Keep in contact with employees who have tested positive and, as far as possible, ensure that they are able to take time off to recover without being contacted by other staff members about work matters.
  2. When they return to work, consider flexi-time for a week or two as they make the adjustment.
  3. If a staff members is experiencing long-term symptoms that are affecting their ability to function normally, everyone may benefit if they work from home. This would enable them to do their work in the hours in which they feel well and rest when they don’t. Obviously, this will not be possible in every industry, but many companies are able to offer this option.
  4. If a staff member is unable to work and they need to leave the company, be sure to follow the correct HR procedures.

Companies should deal with Long Covid as they do any other medical condition. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. HR and management need to look at each employee’s situation on a case-by-case basis to identify what kind of support is needed to help that staff member to do their job.

We’ve all realised that this virus is not going away any time soon, so both employers and employees need to do their bit to manage the impact responsibly and fairly.