As we progress through the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has learned to adapt to this challenging virus after two years of social distancing measures, widespread government intervention and vaccines. While most patients suffering from acute COVID-19 recover fully within approximately four weeks, a growing minority of the world’s population is facing what has come to be termed ‘long COVID’.
Long COVID is an umbrella term to describe signs and symptoms that continue after infection with COVID-19 and describes the continuation of symptoms beyond 4 or 8 or 12 weeks; in many cases the symptoms continue for longer.
These symptoms are varied and may alter in severity over time. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the most common symptoms of long COVID before the spread of the Omicron variant during winter 2021 were fatigue (51% of respondents), loss of smell (37%), shortness of breath (36%) and difficulty concentrating (28%). Other symptoms of the condition can include anxiety, persistent coughing, chest pain, headaches, insomnia and muscle aches.
Those more likely to be at risk of long COVID include individuals with asthma, diabetes, or those who have previously experienced a severe bout of COVID. Young women and people in the older age groups are also more likely to get long COVID. Even people who are asymptomatic (not showing any outward signs of infection) can have long COVID, which can significantly impair both their physical and mental health and can cause delays in diagnosis.
With long COVID potentially being such a debilitating condition, how can its effects on both individuals and businesses alike be best managed?
The front line of any sickness management procedures within a business is its Human Resources team. These teams must be equipped to respond efficiently, both addressing the concerns of employees and ensuring a safe working environment for their overall workforce.
As the condition often leads to long periods of absence, HR policies should be updated to include clear directions for such situations. These will require regular revisions to remain cognisant of legal regulations. Consulting services can also assist organisations in identifying and adapting policy changes, particularly if long COVID and its implications result in debilitating conditions for individuals.
At a wider level, ensuring the workforce is aware of the symptoms and mitigating measures to protect against long COVID can help to achieve effective diagnosis at an early stage. The most important measure against long COVID is to get vaccinated; employers should continue to focus on encouraging their employees to get vaccinated and boosted whenever they are eligible. A variety of resources, such as webinars, lunch and learns, or visits from health professionals are proven methods of sharing vital information. Ensuring that preventative measures such as social distancing and face masks are followed – as well as encouraging the uptake of vaccines – is also part of ensuring that both your HR team and wider workforce are as prepared as they can be against COVID exposure. Consider adding preventative measure even when not required by government.
A crucial facet of the employer’s duty of care to its employees is the easy access of quality care treatment for employees with COVID. This should be flexible enough to incorporate not only ad hoc queries relating to a health condition, but also urgent requests for medical assistance. These services can be provided by a specialist health partner, unlocking access to a global network of expertise for any question or emergency.
The rapid onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic has also brought mental health and emotional struggles to the forefront of the wellness agenda. It’s important to remember that individuals affected by COVID can be susceptible to mental health issues. Make sure your people’s emotional needs are addressed by dedicated experts through your occupational health provider or an employee assistance programme.
Long COVID is a considerable challenge for any business to face. We will know the exact extent of its impact as time goes by, but with a proactive and agile strategy, its effects on your workforce and business continuity can be minimised and regulated.
To find out more about International SOS and how it can support you in mitigating the effects of long COVID, contact Claire Westbrook-Keir, Director of Key Account Management: firstname.lastname@example.org.