Kowheori Roa | Long Covid is often in the news, and it’s no wonder. One in 10 people who’ve had Covid-19 are affected, and some estimates place the ratio is as high as 1 in 5. It’s already an issue in the workplace, for employers and employees.

Early signs are that Long Covid will have worldwide workforce implications. In the UK, 25% of employers cite Long Covid as a main cause of long-term sickness absences. According to one New Zealand study, there are potentially between 300,000 and 400,000 long haulers in Aotearoa.

The exact prevalence of this post-viral illness is still unknown. But experts and advocates say the sheer weight of data about Long Covid’s impacts means the need for relevant policy is urgent and undeniable.

For employers

Long Covid in the workplace

Under the Human Rights Act 1993, an employer is legally obliged to take reasonable measures to meet an employee’s needs in relation to a disability. This is also described as making “reasonable accommodation”.

The New Zealand Disability Strategy defines disability as per article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It includes “… those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This is based on self-definition.

This means that, regardless of your workplace’s policies, employees have a legal right to “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace. This includes such things as physical adjustments to a workspace and flexible working hours.

What employees wish employers knew

  • Employees with Long Covid are battling to get back to work as soon as they can. They are often simultaneously trying to hold on to their job, meet their employer’s expectations, and recover – while knowing that ‘pushing through’ is often a trigger for worsening symptoms. 
  • Whakatā | Rest is imperative for recovery from Covid-19 and to avoid/minimise Long Covid.
  • Some days can be relatively normal, and then a relapse may hit out of the blue. Self-management can be really tricky, because the need to pace clashes with the desire to perform. It can lead to a vicious cycle of going uphill one week and down the next. Long Covid is unpredictable, cyclical, and recovery is not linear.
  • For employees, a positive experience when going through a tough illness signals that they have a great employer. This is important to know for employers who are focused on staff retention, and have values around wellbeing, trust and tautoko | support.
  • To remove stress about job security, it’s vital that employers offer reassurance and explain clear support options in the workplace. It’s also critical for employers to do this if they have wellbeing values and their disability obligations in mind.

Long Covid Support Aotearoa has put together some recommendations from patients with lived experience and experts, in Aotearoa and worldwide.

How to talk to employees about Long Covid

Firstly, employers need to be reassuring, and clearly explain the steps they’re taking to support employees.

Long Covid patients frequently experience people minimising their symptoms, or gaslighting them. It’s essential that employers believe their employees. Long Covid cannot be diagnosed with a test. Some people with Long Covid might not even have had a positive Covid-19 test result, due to access issues. 

If you have more than one Long Covid patient on your team, their symptoms will not be the same. Neither will the trajectory of their recoveries. So avoid asking one employee with Long Covid why they aren’t recovering as quickly as another employee with the illness.

Be respectful and empathetic of their privacy needs. Long Covid carries stigma, and patients are often trying to grapple with reduced capacity in all areas of their life. 

Remove perceived pressure to return in an employer-focused timeframe, or to ‘keep up’ with colleagues. The more you encourage them to use pacing to manage their energy, the less likely they are to have relapses. 

Be conscious that staff may be feeling shame or guilt about their capacity to complete work. Give them time and space for tasks to take a little longer, reduce the number of meetings they attend, and consider removing their KPIs for a while. 

Elements of a Long Covid workplace policy

These suggestions will all āwhina | help create a workplace that caters to employees with Long Covid, while still getting the job done. Consider:

  • options to work from home and/or move meetings online
  • a prolonged or phased return to work (ie. part time for two days a week, with gradual increases)
  • suitable workplace adjustments, such as workstation adaptations or a quiet room to work in
  • flexible work hours
  • reduced physical and/or cognitive load
  • altered tasks, and more time to complete tasks
  • break-time accommodations, such as a room where the employee can lie down.

Talking about an exit strategy

It is incredibly stressful for an employee to face potentially not being able to work. Grappling with a debilitating illness is bad enough, even before you add in loss of income and the grief of a big life change. Ensure you are operating with transparency and good faith when talking about the future.

Many employers assume that systemic safety nets (ACC, benefits, public healthcare) will address Long Covid. Anecdotally, this is not the case in New Zealand. Long Covid patients consistently mention experiencing issues when seeking support, and difficulty navigating the few options available to them.

It’s important that employers offer employees clear pathways to support if employment is discontinued. This could include transition support such as counselling, or help with accessing support through WINZ.

Ensure a plan is in place well prior to discretionary, sick and holiday leave running out. Employees should not feel like they’ve been suddenly ‘pushed’ out.

For employees with Long Covid

It’s incredibly scary to have conversations with an employer about your capacity to work. Please know you are no less valuable because you need to adjust your environment to allow the best chance of recovery. You’re simply putting yourself first.

We recommend writing down what you’d like to say to your employer in advance.

  • Think about what workplace accommodations you would like to see happen. This could include remote or flexi-work, fewer meetings, staggered meetings, an adjusted workload, extended deadlines, etc.
  • Ask for a regular check-in with your manager to kōrero | talk about how you’re feeling. You may need to remind them that no two days are the same, and that recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line.
  • Keep a record of the dates you’ve talked to your employer, and take notes about what both parties said at those meetings. 
  • Talk to an employment lawyer. They can help you think about potential next steps and options if you do need to end your employment.
  • If you have a union representative, talk to them about any Long Covid policies they might be asking for. Union reps can ask for new policy for new contracts, and also negotiate new clauses for existing contracts. Long Covid is a growing issue for staff health and wellbeing, so it should already be on the radar of various unions.
  • Finally – seek support. It can be helpful to have an advocate or support person (a colleague, friend or family member) attend any meetings with you. Ask for advice from people also working through this via Long Covid Support Aotearoa’s Facebook group

Look to the future

It’s impossible to understate the potential impact of Long Covid on the workforce as we navigate current and future variants. Showing leadership to support Long Covid patients is vital.

Finally, the concept of looking to the future is a valuable one, easily recognisable to thriving businesses. Any employer doing that in the context of Covid-19, and making plans to accommodate Long Covid in their wheelhouse of supportive business practice, is a step ahead of the curve.