Long COVID cases in the workforce — and what employers should be doing about it

April 13, 2022

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By Bryon Bass, SVP, workforce absence, and Max Koonce, chief claims officer

Long COVID is an umbrella term for cases in which people experience symptoms related to COVID-19 long after the standard expected recovery period.

According to the World Health Organization definition, symptoms “generally have an impact on everyday functioning” and may come and go over time.

Research findings on the prevalence of long COVID vary greatly. Some estimate that fewer than 10% of those who had COVID experience long-term symptoms, while others have found it to be as many as half of research participants. Even a 10% rate of occurrence is quite significant. With the WHO reporting more than 464 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world, 10% of people experiencing the virus’s long-term effects means that over 46 million people are impacted by post-COVID conditions — and many of them with debilitating symptoms.

Impact of long COVID on the workforce

While most employees who contract COVID can return to work at full capacity within a week or two, those experiencing long-haul symptoms may have functional impairments that significantly affect productivity.

The extreme fatigue associated with long COVID can leave workers with little stamina to meet job demands. “Brain fog” can impede reaction time, memory and the ability to assimilate new information; performing simple tasks and finding the right words to communicate may become difficult. In addition, previously healthy individuals carrying the mental burden of their long-haul symptoms — and suddenly having difficulty focusing, concentrating and thinking at work — may experience anxiety, stress, depression and even trauma as a result of not being able to perform as they once did. Further compounding these cognitive and emotional challenges is the fact that symptoms can come and go, so employees often can’t predict how they will feel or perform at any given time.

The effects of long COVID on physical well-being are also significant. Those away from work for extended periods due to illness or quarantine may experience deconditioning, which can not only reduce productivity but also increase safety risks. The cardiac, pulmonary and gastrointestinal issues associated with long COVID may make it difficult to function at full capacity and can lead to an increase in employee absences.

Action steps for employers

Keep an eye on claims

Monitoring workers’ compensation (WC), disability and leave of absence claim counts and durations is essential to grasping the scope of the organizational impact of long COVID. However, there are a few challenges worth noting:

  • For now, there is no true diagnostic category for long COVID. (The ICD-10 code for post-COVID conditions is still awaiting final approval.) Tracking COVID claims lasting at least a certain number of days may not yield completely accurate data on long COVID, as they will also include extended hospital stays and debilitating symptoms associated with the original bouts of COVID.
  • Because the symptoms of long COVID are sporadic and often differ from the ones people experienced when they first contracted the virus, the resulting health challenges are not always accurately identified as being associated with COVID.
  • Workers’ compensation data may not tell the whole story of long COVID. Even in U.S. states where COVID-19 diagnoses among certain categories of workers are presumed to be work-related and thus covered under WC, individuals with long-term complications have a new burden of proof to show that their lingering symptoms are directly associated with their original COVID claims. Extended durations between claim incidents can further complicate this burden of proof and the ability to demonstrate compensability.

Be open to considering accommodations

Employers should be prepared for an ongoing increase in job accommodation requests. Reasonable accommodations can include job restructuring, modified work schedules and reassignment to open positions; other options for addressing cognitive impairments and behavioral health may include task checklists, allotting extra time for work preparation and assignments, extended work breaks and apps/software to help with organization and focus.

Employers can benefit from engaging in an interactive accommodation process, collaborating with employees on the nature, severity, duration and resulting limitations of their extended COVID-related impairment. By approaching the accommodation of long COVID cases the same way they do other employee performance situations, employers and employees are more likely to identify mutually beneficial solutions that maximize productivity and opportunities for all.

Encourage benefits use

To proactively support those with long COVID, organizations should help employees understand their full range of benefits and how to access them. This includes workers’ compensation, medical care (in-office and telehealth options), behavioral health, pharmacy coverage, sick time/paid time off, leave of absence, accommodations and resources offered by employee assistance programs (EAPs).

Further, management must ensure that the work environment offers a supportive culture in which self-care and benefits utilization are encouraged, rather than frowned upon or viewed as a “weakness” or liability. Employees who come forward and ask for time off, accommodations or professional help due to long COVID should be taken at their word and treated with empathy, rather than suspected of abusing the system. Employers should focus on advocacy and taking care of their people — especially those suffering from the debilitating symptoms of long COVID.

Learn more — check out our commentary paper on long COVID for more on its symptoms and prevalence, how Sedgwick is supporting organizations and employees, what employers can do to prepare for the ongoing impact and trends to watch in the months ahead.

Tags: Absence, Accomodation, advocacy, brain fog, Casualty, coronavirus, COVID workforce challenges, COVID-19, COVID-19 long-haul, Employee, Employees, employer, employers, long COVID, Long-haulers, View on people, View on performance, workers' comp, Workers' compensation, Workforce