How Employers Can Tackle Uncertainties Around Long Covid In The Workplace


Over the past couple of years, much has been spoken about Covid-19 as a dangerous infectious illness. Indeed, the evolution of the global pandemic in early 2020 may, justifiably, be viewed as one of the most momentous events of the 21st century to date.

However, less attention has been given over to the chronic and long-lasting effects of Covid-19 experienced by some sufferers long after the disease’s infectious transmissible phase has waned – known as long Covid.

This is understandable as it is a brand-new condition that patients continue to grapple with and physicians are yet to fully comprehend.

What we do know about long Covid is that it was recognized as a disability under Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 2021.

To better understand some of the impacts of long Covid in the workplace, Inclusively – an employment platform focused on disability accommodations commissioned Health Literacy Media to carry out research using survey data and in-depth insights from individuals living and working with long Covid which was published last week.

For both employers and those affected by the condition, which can involve symptoms such as fatigue, cognitive and memory issues referred to as brain fog, difficulty focusing on tasks and, in some instances, respiratory and mobility deficits, the findings are instructive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 American adults with a prior Covid-19 infection have symptoms of long Covid and an overwhelming 99% of participants of the Inclusively study reported that long Covid had impacted their ability to work.

Breaking this down – 48% said they had to take time off work, 45% reported experiencing depression or anxiety, 39% said they couldn’t work as many hours as they used to be able to and 31% of participants had to change where they worked.

Worryingly, with respect to workplace accommodations that can potentially mitigate the effects of long Covid, it would appear that disparities are evident based on race and ethnic background. Only 20% of respondents of color classified their workplaces as “already flexible,” versus 40% of white respondents.

In terms of requesting accommodations, 35% of respondents of color said they were unaware that they could request accommodations as opposed to just 15% of white respondents who reported this issue.

Finally, with regards to employees worrying about what might happen to them if they requested long Covid-related workplace accommodations – 30% of respondents of color reported feeling fearful, with 16% `of white participants confirming the same.

Mental turmoil

One universal theme to resonate throughout this research is the extent to which difficulties around long Covid can become entangled with mental health issues.

This is a complex interaction because long Covid may evoke changes in brain chemistry that can, in themselves, result in anxiety and depression but such mental health difficulties are equally likely to be fueled by pervading external circumstances – such as worrying about future earnings potential and being stigmatized by colleagues and line managers due to many long Covid symptoms being invisible.

Oftentimes, due to a lack of definitive diagnostics for long Covid, such as a blood test, patients remain unaware that they have it – with this confusion and uncertainty further feeding into anxiety.

Much of this is underpinned by chasm-sized gaps in the knowledge of treating medical professionals, as long Covid is a new disease and nobody understands its true impact over several years.

This was further explained by Catina O’Leary, Ph.D, LMSW, President and CEO at Health Literacy Media during a live webinar last week to unveil the research findings:

“For everyone experiencing long Covid, this is just a different kind of disability situation than anybody has dealt with before and so the doctors, the lawyers – all those folks who would usually be helping you out may not have the answers for you just yet,” said O’Leary.

She continued, “Right now, a doctor just can’t say to their patient, ‘I saw five people this week who’ve been in the same position as you and six weeks from now or two months from now it’s going to be over.’ There’s just no predictability with long Covid and I think that really adds a layer for everyone.”

Assuring employees

Even though the prevalence of unanswered questions around long Covid may point towards a bleak future – when it comes to workplace accommodations at least, the outlook for 2023 should be significantly brighter.

For a start, the first call to action that organizations can undertake to dispel a great deal of fear and uncertainty is relatively straightforward and simply involves talking about the condition more.

This can begin with simple measures like disseminating leaflets and signposting online resources, as well as fostering an atmosphere of openness that should allow employees to communicate with line managers and colleagues without fear of judgment and stigma.

Though long Covid may be an entirely new condition, many of its component symptoms may be similar to other conditions where there exists a wealth of experience in negotiating accommodations. Therefore, the report recommends leveraging these established insights, rather than employers panicking about starting from scratch.

Speaking on last week’s webinar, Charlotte Dales, co-founder and CEO of Inclusively said, “Many of the accommodations listed under the ADA are cheap and easy to implement.

“When I was reading this report, I immediately thought that this feels very similar to what happens right after you have a baby in terms of what is already being done at work for women who’ve just given birth.”

“Of course, it’s not about straight-out replication and sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be thought of as an accommodation process but rather, a human-to-human empathetic interaction drawing upon processes that are already happening at the company.”

One of the ironies, of course, is that nothing in modern history has super-charged thought leadership around flexible working and indeed, the long-term future of work, than the sudden pivot to remote working resulting from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic itself.

If employers are willing to be even half as open to shifting their practices in response to long Covid as they were with acute infectious Covid-19 back in 2020 – then Covid long haulers should have few worries about their additional needs being accommodated at work now and in the future – no matter how long it takes.


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