Getting infected with COVID-19 can cause some people to experience health problems that won’t go away. This is commonly referred to as ‘long COVID’ and can result in symptoms such as extreme tiredness, coughing, breathlessness and problems with memory and concentration.
It’s estimated that anywhere from 10% to 30% of patients might experience long COVID after recovering – even if they weren’t very sick in the first place. People can experience the effects of long COVID for weeks, months and even years. This means it can affect someone’s ability to work or cause them to take time off sick.
Corporate health provider Rehab Management has been working closely with their customers to research the ongoing impacts of long COVID, particularly from a return-to-work perspective. They outline some of the challenges employees face in returning to work in their Long COVID Research report.
Issues to watch
Renee Thornton, General Manager of Rehab Management, said ‘When it comes to long COVID, there are a range of issues and support options that employers need to be aware of, to ensure employees successfully return to work.
‘This might include the need for physical rehabilitation, mental health support or education around things such as energy conservation.’
Since long COVID is a new concept, there’s a lack of research in the field. As a result, many long COVID patients report dismissive attitudes by medical providers, friends, and family, which can make seeking care – whether psychological or physical – even more challenging.
In the return to work space, employers and insurers may not be understanding of the difficulties faced by someone experiencing long COVID who’s trying to return to pre-injury duties and hours.
Cognitive function and mental health
Patients with long COVID often rank cognitive function and mental health at the top of their concerns. When talking with people who have long COVID, it’s important to start by asking about their most prominent concerns and what their goals are. This might include asking the following:
‘What are you hoping to get back to?’
‘If you weren’t sick, what would you do today?’
Answering these questions can help patients and health practitioners to identify specific goals and start developing a plan for what a meaningful life could look like.
It’s important for patients to know that their experiences are valid and real, and that they can try to alleviate them by making changes to their mood, behaviour, and more.
So far, research indicates that COVID-related encephalopathy may lead to other neuropsychiatric outcomes, including psychosis.
It’s important to bring in psychologists who can monitor and address any mental health symptoms that emerge.
For patients with brain fog or memory loss, their mental health will affect their cognition. Patients with severe cognitive issues, such as difficulty accessing important memories or lack of executive functioning would require referrals to a specialised psychologist or neuropsychologist.
Reduction in work capacity
Clients with fatigue may need help mapping out plans for how many tasks they can complete that day, and what they can ask their families to take on.
Many people with long COVID may not be able to accept having reduced or no capacity to work, leading to a decline in self-worth and independence.
Other consequences may include feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and the fear that COVID could affect the rest of their lives.
Many people with long COVID experience fear and anxiety returning to the workplace. This might include fear of infecting others, past infection of others and fear of becoming reinfected.
A number of symptoms of long COVID are related to fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and pain which may not only affect someone’s capacities and abilities to complete pre-injury duties/hours but may also pose a risk to themselves or others in the workplace.
Consideration of additional risk factors due to symptoms of long COVID is crucial to facilitate a safe return to work.
When the employee feels able to return to work
Ms Thornton said ‘Employers should keep in touch with employees and discuss any support they might need prior to returning to work. This could involve getting an occupational health assessment or making changes to the workplace or how the employee works, such as different working hours.’
She said support needs to start early, and be ongoing, with regular reviews between employers and employees.
Modifications to workplace duties and hours that may facilitate a return to work and recovery at work plan include alterations to timings and hours, alterations to workload, taking regular breaks, additional support and supervision, time off for healthcare appointments, phased return to work and option for working from home, equipment adjustments and counselling.
Renee Thornton concluded by saying, ‘Ultimately, employers can better retain workers experiencing long COVID and other chronic illnesses by creating supportive policies.
‘If this is not a company’s area of expertise, experts such as Rehab Management, can provide advice and support,’ she said.