One of the terrible consequences of Covid-19 has been the impact of ‘Long Covid’. Its physical and mental symptoms have left many who felt very able and healthy prior to contracting the virus, now incapable of going about their day-to-day lives. Sally Tribe, PTS Corporate Clinical Lead at Vita Health Group explores how employers can manage the emotional impact of this the new reality for those suffering.
What could an employee with ‘Long Covid’ be experiencing?
The symptoms of Covid-19 are vast and unique to those experiencing them, but common mental and physical complaints include brain fog, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and muscle weakness and joint pain. Whilst there is currently no universally agreed definition on ‘Long Covid’, studies have taught us that it can be incredibly debilitating and long-lasting and those experiencing it often need to make adaptations to the way they live, work and play. These adaptions can be hard to accept.
It is completely normal for someone whose body is under physical strain to also be faced with emotional challenges. Fear that fatigue may never lift or become chronic, guilt about taking sick leave or not having the ability to care for family, and anxious thoughts about not being able to live how they once did, are some of the common emotions and feelings we are hearing from patients in clinic.
And it is not just the direct impact of the symptoms that trigger and emotional response. As lockdown restrictions lift, most people are once again able to find comfort in a version of their ‘normality’ by socialising with friends and family, going on holiday, and working from the office. However, this may be far from reality for ‘Long Covid’ patients. Whilst colleagues embrace the social, physical, and psychological benefits of workplace doors opening, those with ‘Long Covid’ who feel unable to embrace these new freedoms, might be looking on in sadness, envy, or jealousy at the restrictions their body is putting them under.
What is the true mental health impact of ‘Long Covid’?
As this is a relatively new illness, it is difficult to know its true impact on mental health at this stage. However, initial research into the condition, as well as its impact on mental health, can provide us with a steer.
The ONS estimates that almost 14% of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 symptoms, subsequently experience symptoms which linger for three months or more. Research trials have also shown that the number of patients who have fully recovered is low – one study shows just three out of 100 patients confirmed full recovery and other experts estimate that about 10 percent of the population who had Covid-19 have lingering symptoms.
With regards to mental health specifically, a UK study published in The Lancet Psychiatry found that some younger Covid-19 patients who had been hospitalised developed mental health conditions. Plus, those who developed Covid-19 have been found to be twice as likely to develop a mood or anxiety disorder for the first time. Plus, older adults with Covid-19 were found to have a two to three times greater risk of developing dementia.
Certainly, these are heavy and worrying outcomes to digest. All this suggests that, even when the pandemic of acute Covid-19 has been handled, a sizeable issue will remain. Post-viral symptoms on this scale affect not only those who are experiencing them directly, but they can also have serious repercussions for those in the circles around them, including their co-workers and, indeed, you as an employer.
Five ways to support your employees with the emotional impact of ‘Long Covid’.
Disability inclusion and employee wellbeing should be critical agendas in your business, not just for those people who are directly impacted by illness or disability, but for your entire workforce. Study after study has shown that employees particularly value diversity and inclusion programmes.
Positive workplace culture attracts talent, drives engagement, impacts happiness and is important in helping people meet their full potential at work. Plus, we know that when business leaders take accountability for a more inclusive workplace, they are more likely to gain trust, respect, and loyalty from their employees. In truth, employers with robust inclusion programmes can expect higher engagement from their workforce.
Here I share five ways you can support your employees with the mental impact of ‘Long Covid’ and it starts with some acceptance work of your own.
- Accept that ‘Long Covid’ could be a significant challenge for your business.
Your journey as a business starts with acceptance and compassion; acceptance that a portion of your workforce may be living with an illness that impacts their ability to perform at the level you are accustomed to and compassion for those suffering, or anyone who is indirectly impacted such as those who may be caring for a loved-one.
In fact, a UK-based survey found that the ‘Long Covid’ affected the ability to work for 80% of those suffering from it.
You may think practicing acceptance is only relevant to those people experiencing ‘Long Covid’, but it is important that business leaders and HR do too. Accepting that ‘Long Covid’ is a real public health problem and could therefore become a problem for your workforce, will greatly improve your ability to navigate the situation.
- Collaborate with your employee to build a unique ‘Long Covid’ strategy.
Businesses can work to overcome the challenges ‘Long Covid’ presents by ensuring employees who need support are involved in building a holistic mental and physical wellbeing strategy. That way, employers will ensure they are building something that truly reflects the needs of the individual. Ensuring employees feel supported and empowered to build a programme that suits their needs will also help lower absenteeism and maintain productivity.
Make reasonable adjustments for those ‘Long Covid’ sufferers who can or would like to continue working. Provisions to support an individual’s mental and physical needs could include working shorter hours or starting the day later, taking more frequent breaks, or reviewing their desk setup and helping them get what they need for a comfortable and safe set up.
It is likely that you have already needed to adapt to a remote and more flexible way of working due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is your opportunity to harness your experience of the past year to create supportive and flexible strategies for individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
- Create open lines of communication with your employee.
As an employer you have a significant level of accountability for your workforce’s wellbeing. But it must be accepted that health and wellbeing is a dual responsibility between you and your employee.
Very often employees expect their employer to know what is happening and then dictate down to them as to how to solve the issue. But employers and line managers are not mind readers. Employees need to raise any concerns they have with their employer as soon as possible, otherwise things cannot be improved.
Look to implement company-wide training and communicate your ‘Long Covid’ support plan to everyone in your business. As with any illness, it can be difficult for individuals to feel they can speak out and ask for support. Living with an illness, especially one that is invisible and poorly understood, can feel alienating. Help those who are suffering speak out by normalising conversations around health, wellbeing and, in this case, ‘Long Covid’. It is beneficial for middle management and senior employees to lead the charge and, if they feel comfortable to do so, volunteer to share their own experiences.
- Remind your employee of their value.
Living with a mental or physical illness can lead to feelings of worthlessness, and low self-esteem. In some instances, your employees may be experiencing depression and anxiety as a result of contracting ‘Long Covid’ and others may be living with traumatic bereavement from the pandemic. It is important to remind the individual of their value, particularly at a time when they may be feeling their contribution to the workplace is anything but. They may be concerned their position in the company or opportunities to progress will be taken away. Timely reminders that this is, in fact, not the case, could help remove this weight of concern for your employee. Although it may feel like it to them, your employee is not alone on their journey and you are an important part of helping them realise this.
- Provide free access to talking therapies.
The build-up of stress and worry that many people who have ‘Long Covid’ experience can impact their resilience to cope with the demands of day-to-day life. Mental and physical illness can be a drain on emotional resource. However, the act of talking and unpacking complicated feelings with a therapist in a safe space, without judgement, can make a big difference to someone’s resilience.
The reality is that turning a problem around and around in your head often leads to a dead end, or worse, increased feelings of stress and anxiety. Although individuals may be looking for a quick fix, short term solutions like supressing feelings and emotions often turn into bigger and longer-term problems. Employees can help wrap their brain around the unique and often scary problems they are dealing with by vocalising their story. Sharing the weight of thoughts with someone else, will help your employee reflect in a clearer and more logical way.
Developing long-term strategies, support systems and creating an environment of inclusion where people managing ‘Long Covid’ – or indeed any illness or disability – can succeed, will reap rewards for everyone.