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Employers must act on mental health impact of ‘long Covid’

Coronavirus computer visualisation

Employers should plan how to manage long-term absences resulting from the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 virus, an employment law expert has said.

Amy Hextell of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the findings of a recent University of Oxford study, which showed a link between a Covid-19 diagnosis and mental health conditions, highlighted the need for employers to support employees who could be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010 as a result of so-called ‘long Covid’.

The observational study found two-thirds of people with a previous Covid-19 diagnosis went on to develop or have a relapse in a mental health condition in the six months following the diagnosis, which was significantly more than in those who have suffered other respiratory diseases and flu.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is also carrying out analysis of ongoing Covid-19 symptoms. In its April update the ONS said self-reported long Covid symptoms, persisting more than four weeks after the initial diagnosis, were adversely affecting the day-to-day lives of 674,000 people.

Prudent employers will be thinking now about the possibility of higher absence and the need for increased and different support for colleagues who may now be considered disabled

Hextell said the Equality Act defined a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on someone’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Long-term means that it has lasted, or is likely to last, 12 months.

Hextell said: “That means that the effect does not have to have lasted 12 months to be legally considered a disability, as even if it is likely to last that long the Equality Act can still apply. However, increasingly as we move beyond the 12-month anniversary of Covid-19 impacting the UK, employers may find an increased number of their workforce still dealing with adverse symptoms of long Covid which have actually lasted 12 months, making it clearer that the employee is legally considered disabled.”

Hextell said employers needed to think about how they would manage ongoing absence resulting from symptoms of long Covid and ensure proper support for affected employees.

“Some employers initially discounted Covid-related absence from absence policies and trigger points for action, but as we learn to live with the virus, this approach may need to change,” she said. “In addition, those who are disabled must be afforded reasonable adjustments if any requirement of their role or workplace practice or policy puts them at a substantial disadvantage, so employers need to speak to employees to understand what their needs are.”

Hextell said employers may have to reconsider requiring someone to travel significantly for their work who continues to suffer from fatigue and other symptoms of long Covid, if that requirement places that employee at a disadvantage. Similarly, employees with ongoing symptoms may need to have their hours reduced or working patterns changed to support them.

Employers also need to account for higher absenteeism in workforce planning if a proportion of their workforce is still absent from work as a result of long Covid, including ensuring that managers are sufficiently well equipped to support and manage that absence.

“The precise nature and scale of the pandemic and ongoing ill health as a result of it remains to be seen but prudent employers will be thinking now about the possibility of higher absence and the need for increased and different support for colleagues who may now be considered disabled,” Hextell said.

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