Many people with long COVID initially feel ready to return to work but then require more time off as symptoms reappear.
According to the World Health Organization, “10%-20% of people experience a variety of mid- and long-term effects after they recover from their initial illness. These mid- and long-term effects are collectively known as post-COVID-19 conditions or “long COVID.”
Long COVID is a real and serious condition, and its long-term implications on people’s health are still being discovered. If you work directly with someone on your team who has long-COVID, here are some tips to help support them through this time.
Why do employees with long COVID need different treatment?
Isabel Duarte, Mindfulness Coach, explains that “Long COVID is so recent and not well fully understood. So, the difference in employee needs compared to other health conditions is [still being discovered]. The symptoms and health challenges fluctuate a lot from person to person.”
Employees suffering from long COVID may have some days where they can work from bed and other days where they need to sleep the entire day. Duarte explains that having long COVID makes it very difficult to plan ahead, which can impact both the employee and their team.
It’s common for employees who might be recovering from long COVID to experience a relapse in their health. Duarte shares from her own experience recovering from long COVID that “there’s no treatment plan.
Essential long COVID health management
The primary [treatment] recommendations are borrowed from chronic fatigue management:”
- Basically, energy management
- Activity pacing
- Full rest
“For example, if I know I need to shower tomorrow, today I’m going to avoid doing much so I can charge up my energy. Or, if I need to make a phone call, I need to be sitting or lying down [to conserve energy]. It’s life-altering, bothersome, and frustrating. And that’s just dealing with my fatigue.”
Organizations and managers play a role in supporting these employees and ensuring they can take the time off they need to heal. While time off is essential, it’s not the only factor. Employees need to know that their positions are safe and that their team has their work covered so that they can rest without the stress of falling behind or losing their jobs.
What should you do when an employee has long-term COVID?
When you have an employee who approaches you and lets you know they have long-COVID, recognize that they’re nervous and afraid of whether you will react or respond to their news.
With that in mind, talking about the situation with empathy and compassion will be paramount.
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Recommended steps you can take
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests the following steps when supporting one of your employees through their long COVID. These steps include:
- Understand your organization’s policies, procedures, and support. Take the steps required to learn more about how your organization would like you and the employee to proceed. Learn about what resources are available. Direct the employee to your company’s resources like benefits information and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This way, you can help your employee navigate the situation.
- Manage absences and returns to work with compassion and flexibility. While your employee may be eager to return to work, consider implementing a gradual return to work schedule. Many people with long COVID initially feel ready to return to work but then require more time off as symptoms reappear. Be kind and patient with your employees as they get to know their own boundaries and energy levels.
- Discuss and implement helpful workplace adjustments. The kinds of adjustments your employee might need will be individualized, and you should communicate openly with the employee as their situation changes. The CIPD suggests considering adjustments such as “home or hybrid working, flexible working times, reduced or off-peak commuting time, making work tasks physically, mentally, or cognitively less demanding, a wellbeing room for downtime during the working day, and a supportive organizational culture.”
- Have ongoing supportive and empathetic conversations. Letting your employee know what is going on, keeping them in the loop, and maintaining open lines of communication will help them feel safe and secure as they take the time off they need. It will also help you understand their situation.
Managing your own boundaries
Remember that as a manager, you are there to support your employee through their recovery. This means making sure that their work is not interfering with them getting better. Be sure to mind your own mental health, and remember you are not your employee’s mental health or medical professional.
If you notice your employee leaning on you for medical or mental health support, refer them to your company’s EAP and their medical professionals.
Most importantly, manage your own boundaries and mental health!
As a member of a small business, there will likely be fewer people on your team to help you cover your employee’s work. There will have to be some prioritization involved. Do what you can to spread the work evenly, and recognize that you may not be able to do it all.
Long COVID cases are increasing
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, long COVID cases in the U.S. span somewhere between 7.7 million to 23 million people. This is a huge number and makes up a significant amount of the workforce, especially as it pertains to small businesses.
If you work in a small business, someone you work with may likely suffer from long-COVID. While you can’t directly impact your employee’s recovery time, you can help them rest easy knowing they are supported.