Long Covid and Employment: overcoming challenges

Sheffield UCU member Tim Herrick (Senior University Teacher, School of Education) recently attended a seminar organised by Leeds Occupational Health Advisory Service, entitled “Long Covid and Employment: overcoming challenges“. His report is below.

In the seminar we heard from a range of speakers, focusing on people living with Long Covid and medical professionals involved in supporting them. The emphasis throughout was on understanding what was happening for individuals with this condition; symptoms vary so much within the patient group and across time, that the safest recommendation is to focus on what is happening for this individual at this moment.

The figures around Long Covid are startling; there’s an estimated 2 million people living with Long Covid in the UK, and 36 million across Europe; and in the UK, more working days are lost due to Long Covid than to any other condition. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that Long Covid may have resulted in the loss of 4.4 million working hours per week in the UK.

The strength of hearing directly from people with the condition was understanding the impact of these figures in the context of individual lives; for instance, one speaker was a GP who had previously run 5 sessions per week. In an attempted return to work after Long Covid, she ran one session; and was so exhausted, she spent the next three weeks in bed.

There isn’t a clear set of symptoms associated with Long Covid, although fatigue, breathlessness, and tachycardia (accelerated heartbeat) are found more often than most. And while there isn’t a clear treatment programme for the condition overall, real progress can be made with these individual symptoms, for instance, through medication that helps regulate heartbeat.

If colleagues, union reps, or caseworkers are supporting someone with Long Covid, especially if they are having difficulties staying in or returning to work, there are some basic principles of good practice it might be useful to remember:

  • Each individual’s experience is different, including their set of symptoms and concomitant support needs. Attend, therefore, to their experiences, and recognise that the forms that effective support might take are likely to vary over time.
  • Too rigid an approach to institutional processes may also not be helpful – the duration of phased returns might need to be flexed, the reasonable adjustments required might need to be wide-ranging and adaptable, and regular communication between the member and their managers is likely to be key.
  • There’s the old medical dictum of seeing the patient not the illness; each person with Long Covid will be experiencing it in slightly different ways, and there will be a whole set of possible intersections with previous conditions or lifestyle factors. There is also likely to be psychological impact; as one of the experts by experience put it in the seminar, “The fatigue I face isn’t just being tired, it’s life changing“.

Friday March 15th is International Long Covid Awareness day, and I’d welcome suggestions from colleagues in the branch as to whether we might do anything to mark this event.

For colleagues who are struggling with a return to work, or who are supporting those who might be facing challenges, it’s worth remembering the Trades Union Congress resources about Long Covid, and, for more of a deep dive, the Society for Occupational Medicine’s report about returning to work with Long Covid.

My thanks again to the branch for enabling my attendance at this event.

Long Covid and Employment: overcoming challenges-  Slides and handouts