Much has been written about how to manage the threat of COVID in the workplace and most employers now have procedures in place to minimise risks and manage the short-term fall-out of infection.
However, whilst the focus has been on dealing with short-term issues, longer-term COVID-related illness is increasingly becoming an issue. Common recurrent issues seem to be lingering chest pain/tightness, fatigue, disrupted sleep and aches and pains that linger long after the infection is gone; however there is a long list of other symptoms which may also be experienced. Whilst most people will be back on their feet after 12 weeks, we have had a number of enquiries about how employers should deal with the situation where this isn’t the case.
Where to start
The starting point is to establish whether an employee is fit for work. This might be obvious if the employee is signed off. However an employee may try to return to work before they are ready and employers need to be aware of this and to take appropriate steps to help and support their employees. Some employees may find that their symptoms come and go, making it very difficult to manage them.
Guidance fro ACAS
ACAS has released guidance for employers which encourages a proactive and sympathetic approach. Whist this guidance is not itself legally binding, it reflects the sort of approach likely to be expected by an Employment Judge if a legal claim ensues.
Key tips for employers
- Be aware that the effects of long COVID can come and go. Just because an employee has returned to work and seems fine does not mean they have made a full recovery and won’t need further time off.
- Consider an occupational health assessment.
- Bear in mind the condition may amount to a disability. In this case, there is a legal obligation to consider and make reasonable adjustments. It is good practice to discuss these whether or not the employee is disabled. Examples of possible adjustments include a phased return to work, allowing flexible working, temporarily reducing an employee’s duties and putting in place extra support to stop the employee from being overwhelmed.
- If absence becomes a real issue you could consider a formal capability process (as with any employee attendance issue) but any such process should be a two-way conversation with the employee to look for possible solutions, rather than a tick-box exercise designed to justify a dismissal. Dismissal should be the last resort but may be appropriate in more serious cases.
- Given the risks around this area, consider taking specific legal advice on the situation.
Find out more
Please get in touch with our employment lawyers if you require advice generally or help with anything relating to this topic.
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