Getting back to work with Long Covid: Where is the creativity?

Getting back to work with Long Covid: Where is the creativity?

Today I attended, nearly three years into my Long Covid journey, a workshop run by my local Long Covid clinic and the Richmond Fellowship on employment. One of the key messages was that it is possible for people to return to work with Long Covid but that this needs creativity.

After attending the workshop, I went onto Facebook only to find yet another NHS worker with Long Covid has been dismissed because they can’t say when they will be back at work. Last week I posted on Twitter stating:

In the past few days numerous NHS staff with #LongCovid have posted on Facebook saying HR are preventing their return to work by insisting they can only have a 4-6 week phased return at 50% of their normal hours. This is setting people up to fail and goes against all the best practice guidelines. Anyone would think we didn’t have a workforce crisis let alone a moral obligation to support our staff. #NHSHeroToZero

I can’t see any creativity here. At a time when there is an NHS workforce crisis this is CRAZY and incredibly short-sighted. I also consider this IMMORAL, particularly as many NHS employers chose to follow inaccurate Government guidance rather than adhere to their requirements under Health and Safety legislation (see this blog). (A summary of the evidence that Covid is Airborne can be found by clicking here.)

Workers with Long Covid have told us about enablers which support them to return to work (Figure 1). Several research studies also provide information about these enablers (e.g., Lunt  et al. 2022) as well as the impact of Long Covid on people’s ability to work (Figure 2). (This is discussed in more detail in a recent editorial.) A recent study also found that returning to work after Long Covid took significantly longer than after the flu with 5.5% of employees who caught covid being off work for more than 12 weeks (Aben et al. 2023).

Figure 1: Enablers for returning to work (courtesy of Long Covid Work)

Figure 2: Impact of Long Covid on employment
(Medinger, G. and Altman, D. (2022) The Long Covid Handbook, Penguin Books: Dublin; Lunt et al. 2022; TUC survey)

Despite the availability of evidence about how to support people back to work (Box 1) many NHS staff with Long Covid continue not to receive the support they need to do so. Some examples are provided in Figure 3. In addition some employers do not seem to be meeting the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act. (More information about whether Long Covid is a disability can be seen here.)

Box 1: Returning to work with Long Covid: Some resources

Best practice guidelines
The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) guidelines Long Covid and Return to work- What works? can be found by clicking here.  

The World Health Organisation living guideline is available here.  

The World Physio guidelines on safe rehabilitation for people living with Long Covid can be accessed here.  

UNISON has published Bargaining guidance on supporting members with long COVID or post-COVID-19 syndrome  

Webinar
How to put current best practice guidelines into practice is summarised in this SOM webinar.  

Podcasts
Evidence Based Nursing recorded two podcasts:  
Working in the NHS with Long Covid: Three nurses’ stories (June 2022) Sustainable return to nursing with Long Covid, advice from the experts  (May 2022)

Figure 3: Fighting for reasonable adjustments in the NHS

If the NHS cares about its workers with Long Covid (and I sometimes doubt they do) NOW is the time for action. Unions and NHS employers need to lobby the UK Government for money to support the return to work of staff with Long Covid as part of a long-term sustainable workforce plan. The funding received could be used to, among other things:

  1. Provide on-going financial support to NHS staff with Long Covid who are not well enough to return to work.
  2. Support staff financially while they are undertaking an extended phased return to work.
  3. Pay for NHS staff to have diagnostic tests to speed up the possibility of them returning to work.
  4. Provide meaningful education and training for all staff about Long Covid that results in a change in policies and procedures, allowing flexibility to support staff to return to work.
  5. Fund senior posts in HR and management to oversee the support of staff with Long Covid within each organisation thus enabling thinking outside the box, creativity and flexibility.

Figure 4: Summary: What staff with Long Covid need when returning to work

Figure 4 provides a summary of the support NHS staff with Long Covid need when returning to work. There are currently so many vacancies in the NHS I believe that with a degree of creativity, it should be possible to create roles that enable staff with Long Covid to return to work (even if this is from home) while relieving the pressure on others. Thus keeping staff in the NHS workforce for the future. Surely, it’s a no brainer?

Author: Alison Twycross PhD RN

Founder: Long Covid Nurses and Midwives; Editor-in-Chief - Evidence Based Nursing; Former Deputy Dean and Professor of Children’s Nursing

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