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Is long Covid-19 a disability?

For those employers in the flooring industry wondering whether long Covid-19 constitutes a disability, Anna Bithrey has the answers.

MORE than a million people in the UK who have contracted Covid-19 in the UK have continued to exhibit signs of the virus more than three months after they were originally infected.

So-called ‘long Covid-19’ remains a bit of mystery, but it can cause persistent symptoms, the like of which will considerably affect the lives of those unfortunate enough to be struck down with it, making a challenge of even the most straightforward activities.

With 1 in 10 people now reportedly living with the condition, employers are being urged to consider their HR position to ensure they’re fully prepared to manage the impact of long Covid-19-19 in the workforce.

Disability at work
Long Covid-19 doesn’t currently have a textbook definition as to what it actually is, or what causes it to occur in some people, but the NHS states that sufferers may continue to present with several potentially debilitating ailments for months after initial infection. Common concerns include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest problems, forgetfulness, and depression.

The physical and psychological consequences of long Covid-19 can be huge, so those experiencing symptoms can be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010.

This refers to any individual who experiences a ‘physical or mental impairment’ that can cause a ‘substantial’ or ‘long-term’ effect on their capacity to carry out routine tasks. ‘Long-term’ suggests the person will have had the condition or looks likely to be affected by it for at least a year, with symptoms changing in severity over time.

Of course, this explanation won’t be relevant for all long Covid-19 sufferers given the evolving nature of the disorder, but it does provide a point of reference from which to start assessing a person’s unique circumstances.

However, should a person fit these criteria and be considered disabled due to long Covid-19, the employer must act responsibly to accommodate for absence. ACAS recommends that this should include making reasonable adjustments to working practices so employees with the condition have the opportunity to continue in their roles. As an employer, if you don’t do this, then you may find yourself falling foul of discrimination legislation.

Working practices
As with any other chronic illness, we can be reasonably certain that those afflicted with long Covid-19 will need to take short, repeated absences from their jobs, as well as longer, more prolonged ones. For that matter, from an HR perspective, long Covid-19 patients should be treated no differently from anyone else suffering from a comparable chronic disorder.

The most effective thing you can do as an employer in these circumstances is to liaise closely with those involved to decide upon the best way forward from that point. Start with agreeing on how you will communicate, be that speaking daily or weekly, on the phone or by email, etc.

Also consider between you, how the details of the situation will be shared with colleagues and clients for the sake of complete clarity. It’s important to set these boundaries in place early given the fluid nature of the condition, and only then can you look at what steps will best support a safe, achievable return to work.

This will look different for everyone, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. But there are a wide variety of concessions that could be contemplated and may make all the difference.

These could include introducing alternative shift patterns, offering more frequent or lengthy breaktimes, a phased reintegration to duties, investment in further equipment, transport, PPE, or tools to make tasks easier, or, if relevant, even an alteration to job specifications. The important thing to note is that at no point should any decisions regarding an individual’s working conditions be changed without full agreement from the employee, and, if possible, with the support of medical or occupational health professionals.

If after this a genuine concern lingers as to whether an employee can return to work under any circumstances, launching a formal capability procedure might be the only viable option, but this should only be considered once all else has failed.

Although the past year has fundamentally altered how businesses, clients, management teams, and the labour force as a whole engage or work with one another, the developing situation with long Covid-19 really only highlights the ongoing significance of being agile and responsive, particularly when it comes to HR.

Having said that, the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 virus and in turn, long Covid-19 does throw up many HR anomalies that need to be handled sensitively. At any time, should there be any doubt as to how to manage long Covid-19 within the workforce, it’s crucial you obtain expert assistance from a qualified Employment Law team, who can evaluate the situation on your behalf and ensure that you don’t make any potentially costly errors that will have a long-lasting bearing upon your business.

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