Long COVID is a term used to describe the symptoms and effects of COVID-19 that last longer than four weeks beyond the initial diagnosis.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that as of 30 March 2023, an estimated 1.9 million people living in private households in the UK (2.9 per cent of the population) were experiencing self-reported long COVID.
The rates of self-reported long COVID were greatest in people aged 35 to 69, females, those living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with a pre-existing activity-limiting health condition.
Long COVID can have a significant impact on someone's general health and can affect people in different ways. The most common symptoms include:
- persistent fatigue
- shortness of breath
- brain fog (cognitive challenges)
- a range of other symptoms which can be found on the NHS website.
If you have any concerns about yourself or a colleague's symptoms lasting four weeks or more after having COVID-19, please advise them to contact their GP.
Diagnosis and prognosis
The National Institute for Health and Care (NIHR) is funding research to support the diagnosis, management and treatment of long COVID. Findings are likely to implicate the support which NHS organisations can provide to staff. Read more on NIHR's researching long COVID: addressing a new global health challenge web page.
There is still uncertainty around the prognosis of long COVID, as each person can experience a range of different symptoms. In some cases, people have begun to feel better before experiencing a return of fatigue and needing further time off to recover. This is known as the ‘boom and bust’ pattern.
It is important to have regular conversations with colleagues to ensure they understand the needs of people with long COVID and help prevent their risk of relapse.
Workforce disability and the Eqaulity Act
It should be noted there is ongoing debate about whether employers should view long COVID within the context of workforce disability, in line with the Equality Act 2010 which states: 'a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'.
If the long COVID symptoms have a substantial adverse impact on the employee carrying out day-to-day activities and the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for 12 months, it could fall within the definition of a disability under the Equality Act. This means the employee should not be treated less favourably due to their condition, and the duty for the employer to make reasonable adjustments would be triggered.
Recovering from long COVID can be a lengthy process and employees will need to be supported to recover at their own pace ensuring that they do not relapse.
Line managers can support staff with long COVID by:
- Having regular wellbeing conversations to see how staff members are feeling now that they have returned to work.
- Checking whether any staff member who is working reduced hours and has a less demanding caseload is still happy with this arrangement and whether they would like to make any reasonable adjustments.
- Asking whether the staff member is working flexibly to allow them time to adjust back into the workplace, such as working longer/shorter days or taking longer breaks.
- Recommending that staff members join long COVID support groups and peer networks.
- Highlighting wellbeing services and psychological support.
- Signposting staff to multidisciplinary post-COVID rehabilitation clinics, where available - staff can be referred via a GP or occupational health.
NHS England guidance
NHS England has pulled together a range of resources for staff who may need help with their recovery from long COVID:
- Supporting colleagues affected by long COVID.
- Guidelines for supporting our NHS people affected by long COVID.
- Online rehab services at Your COVID Recovery.
- Comprehensive health and wellbeing offer.
- Referral to one of the 89 post-COVID assessment clinics by their GP.
- Occupational health teams can provide onward referral to other support services where available.
Society of Occupational Medicine
The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has published Long COVID: A Manager’s Guide (2024). This resource could be used by managers to help colleagues struggling with any long-term condition that affects their ability to work. SOM's Supporting return to work after COVID-19 infographic and myth buster may also support you and your colleagues.
Evidence shows line managers have a significant impact on a successful return to work. Therefore, they need to be supported and guided on how they can manage and support their staff effectively while they are absent from work.
Line managers can review what support is already available to them in their organisation, which can be found in the section above (supporting staff at work with long COVID). Line managers may also want to ensure that they:
- maintain regular contact to support and connect with staff during their absence
- refer to local sickness absence procedures to ensure that appropriate principles are applied to support staff
- signpost to local support/ in-house services such as:
- musculoskeletal and rehabilitation services
- psychological services
- wellbeing services
- peer groups
- staff networks
- financial wellbeing advice
- guidance on working from home
- chronic fatigue services
- refer colleagues to an occupational health adviser to ensure they are supported as early as possible.
When an NHS employee is on sick leave for a long time or is returning from sickness absence, they should be assessed by their occupational health team to ensure that they are ready and able to return to work. This is to ensure that the employer understands what their employee needs to return to work safely.
Occupational health may advise that the staff member:
- is unfit to return to work and should continue to stay on sick leave with regular check-ins
- returns to work on a phased return with reduced hours allowing sufficient time for recovery
- does a less physically demanding role such as admin/taking phone calls/ reducing their caseload that will allow them to work at a desk or in some cases from home
- does a less cognitively demanding role by considering job rotation and adjustments such as moving to a less cognitively demanding work area and reducing caseloads.
Working closely with your organisation’s occupational health team on how to support staff with long COVID can help you to understand:
- how to support staff during their sickness absence
- the symptoms of long COVID and how they can affect performance at work
- how to support staff returning on a phased return
- how to support staff remaining at work.
A safe and successful return to work requires careful planning. Staff may be anxious about returning to the workplace after having time off sick with long COVID and may require additional support from their manager and organisation. This may include:
- holding a wellbeing conversation with staff about how they feel about returning to work, to listen and support them with any anxieties and explore options to support a return
- giving staff less physically and emotionally demanding jobs
- having a conversation about the staff member working shorter hours or take longer more regular breaks
- allowing staff to return to work on a standard or extended phased return
- ensuring that conversations about returning to work are under constant review and that staff feel comfortable about returning to work.
The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has produced a return to work guide (PDF) for managers on how they can provide ongoing support to staff to return to work following COVID-19 infection and long COVID. They have also produced a paper providing a summary of their webinar entitled “Long COVID and return to work support – what works?”. The paper will be of use to employers and encourages a multi-disciplinary approach in the retention and supporting of staff who return to work with long COVID.
The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) has updated their guidance aimed at managers and employers to assist them in facilitating the return to work of staff members who were unable to work due to long COVID. This guidance includes a set of practical steps, a state of fitness for work, and supplementary policy and guidance documents.
The institute for employment studies (IES) has published a toolkit to help employers establish a return to work plan for staff living with obesity and returning to work after COVID-19.
Staff with long COVID may benefit from a gradual return to work that can be adapted to everyone’s circumstances.
Some may experience difficulty in being able to fulfil the physical, emotional and cognitive side of their role, therefore, the phased return may allow them to:
- work from home (when possible)
- work reduced hours
- work a more flexible working pattern, for example, three longer days instead of five shorter days
- take regular and longer breaks - research shows that short and frequent breaks are more effective
- reduce their caseload
- work less cognitively demanding jobs if the staff member is suffering from brain fog
- work at a desk if their current job is physically demanding, reduce physically demanding aspects of the job
- discuss opportunities to be redeployed.
NHS Employers' reasonable adjustments in the workplace web page features a number of organisations, including government bodies, that have developed a range of good practice videos and guidance to help employers support their staff.
The employer should regularly check in with the employee to ensure that this pattern of work is suited to them and explore if it is necessary to increase or decrease their workload.
- The University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust has created a helpful video presented by an occupational therapist (who is a part of the organisation’s therapy department) that outline how managers can support staff with ongoing COVID-19-related symptoms to return to work safely.
- Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has set up a peer support network for colleagues who have long COVID. The support group meets online to discuss the effects of long COVID and to check in on how they are feeling and share experiences. Managers and staff (who do not have long COVID) are invited to join these meetings to find out more information on how they can support their colleagues.
- Herefordshire and Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust has been running fortnightly long COVID peer support groups for staff and managers. The group has been received well by staff with new members joining regularly. Staff can talk openly about how they are coping with long COVID and how their managers can support them. The trust's associate director of HR attended to answer questions on policies, sickness and pay, which staff found extremely valuable. A member of the long COVID group is scheduled to attend the trust’s workforce committee meeting (which a number of directors sit on) to share their story and experience of having long COVID to raise awareness and highlight the support needed.
- Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had 40 members of staff with long COVID attend a six-week virtual programme with their occupational therapist. The trust now has a support group that meets monthly. The group is very proactive in researching ways on how to be the best they can be at work.
- Belfast Health & Social Care Trust's occupational health department provides a long COVID assessment clinic that is occupational therapy-led. This enables individuals to focus on functional ability that facilitates a holistic approach to individuals returning to work and importantly, remaining in work. The clinic provides self-directed rehab, multi-disciplinary team rehab, respiratory rehab and horticultural rehab. This innovative intervention has enabled staff to return and remain at work successfully.
Long COVID webinar
We held a webinar on 22 June 2021 to help NHS organisations understand how best they can support colleagues with long COVID. Visit our resources page to watch the webinar and find out more information.
- CIPD - Working with long COVID research resource.
- CIPD - Working with long COVID: Guidance for people professionals.
- Health, Safety and Wellbeing Group (HSWG) - Promoting health and wellbeing and attendance at work.
- NHS England - Guidelines for supporting our NHS people affected by long COVID.
- NHS England - Long COVID: A framework for nursing, midwifery, and care staff.
- NHS England - Supporting colleagues affected by long COVID.
- NHS Employers - Sickness absence toolkit.
- Queen Margaret University (QMU), Edinburgh - Support after COVID - QMU podcast series.
- Royal College of Nursing (RCN) - Supporting staff who are living with long COVID: Guidance for managers.
- Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) - Long COVID and return to work - what works?
- Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) - Long COVID A Manager’s Guide.
- Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) - Supporting return to work after COVID-19 infographic.
- The National Institution for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) - Guidance for managing the long-term effects of COVID-19.