Employers should offer long Covid sufferers who are prone to ‘ploughing on’ through illness practical, compassionate engagement as they ease back into the workplace.
This is according to Dr Julie Denning, managing director at health and wellbeing services provider Working to Wellbeing, who told Health & Protection that the UK has a culture of ploughing on through illness.
She added that some people cannot imagine not being at work.
“We’re almost proud to say that we didn’t take a day off with the last cold and the flu barely touched the sides in terms of work attendance,” she said.
“Many of the patients we work with have never been off work due to illness so to suddenly have to do so feels understandably deeply uncomfortable.
“People see work as part of their self-identity and gives them a purpose, structure and sense of normalcy to everyday living.
“To suddenly not have that is a big adjustment to make and as a result some people chomp at the bit to recover and often return to work before they are ready to do so.”
Dangers of returning too quickly
Denning (pictured) warns the consequence of a premature return to work can result in a flare up of symptoms requiring further time off work.
“This in its own right can feel demoralising, can knock confidence and can cause feelings of anxiety and low mood,” she continued.
“Just imagine the compounding effect on someone who not only has never had time off, but who usually juggles at least five things, works at 100 miles an hour and works 11 hour days.
“Consider also the person terrified of losing their job and their ability to keep a roof over their or their family’s head. To not be at work is unimaginable.”
Consequently, Denning says supporting people back into work needs employer understanding and practical, compassionate engagement.
“Line managers are often the ones providing such support. Their role is pivotal in helping their colleague who is thinking of returning to work, doing so in a way that is gradual and individualised.”
Points line managers need to consider include showing compassion and understanding that long Covid is not yet well understood but definitely exists, that people are not making it up and that they won’t be able to plough on through.
She adds that reassurance is important and however busy the team, or numerous the deadlines to be achieved, the employee’s recovery needs to come first.
Riding the ‘corona coaster’
As well as keeping in touch with colleagues while they are off work and as they start to recover, managers should start conversations about what return to work could like in principle.
Long Covid has been referred to as the ‘corona coaster’ and its symptoms can be cyclical in nature, something that needs to be taken into consideration when planning any return to work and allowing for flexibility to take this into account.
Plans need to be flexible and return to work sustained, Denning says, and if a plan needs to be at four weeks in, so be it.
She adds that helping someone to remain in work with support will build their confidence and a create foundation of deep respect for their employer.
And while line managers should identify what the individual’s needs are and what can be done to support them, Denning says regular reviewing is essential to ensure that their return is going as smoothly as possible.
Ultimately, Denning says, a “reassuring, compassionate employer” who provides a realistic phased return to the workplace can make all the difference.