Pressure is clearly mounting on the Government to classify long-COVID as a disability. The aim is to provide thousands of employees with legal protection against any potential discrimination in the workplace.
Interestingly, a recent survey commissioned by the TUC revealed that just over half of people with symptoms, which typically include extreme tiredness, brain fog and dizziness, have experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage at work.
The online poll of 3,500 people found that long-COVID sufferers are frequently met with disbelief and suspicion, with 19% of respondents saying that managers questioned the impact of the condition.
With calls for long-COVID to be given ‘occupational disease’ status for healthcare workers, there is clearly growing momentum for the condition to be given greater precedence in the workplace. While long-COVID is something that is entirely new, the Equality Act 2010 talks about disability as a physical or mental impairment that affects you day-to-day. The Act doesn’t contain a long list of conditions; it’s all about how it impacts your daily life. As such, there is a strong case for the emerging condition to be classed as such.
If long-COVID is categorised as a disability, employers will have to be very cautious about how they deal with the condition moving forward, to avoid any potential discrimination claims. However, from a HR perspective, the motivation shouldn’t be about avoiding employee action. Rather, it should be about what the long-term effects are going to be on workers, so that employers can put appropriate measures in place to support staff. The problem is, we don’t know a huge amount about the condition, which seems to differ enormously from one person to another.
As we wait to see how long-COVID is treated from a legal perspective, there are a number of key things that HR Directors and business owners should consider to ensure they are dealing with the condition in the most appropriate way – now and in the future.
- Develop a robust relationship with an occupational health specialist, or ensure you have a well-functioning OH department in place, depending on your size. This will allow you to access professional advice and support when dealing with long-term conditions.
- Review and update your current sickness absence policy, how people report sickness and what procedures are in place to manage absences.
- Focus on wellbeing in the workplace, not just in relation to long-COVID, but also people returning to the office after months working remotely. The issue of health and wellbeing has grown in prominence in recent years and the global pandemic has only served to propel the topic up the business agenda, as employers adopt the approach of ‘prevention is better than a cure’.
- Create clear lines of communication, encouraging open dialogue with employees regarding their physical and mental health. It’s vital that staff have both the confidence and the appropriate channels to be able to discuss health and wellbeing issues, knowing that their concerns will be listened to, and the support will be forthcoming.