How employers should adapt to the emerging threat of long Covid
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How employers should adapt to the emerging threat of long Covid

How employers should adapt to the emerging threat of long Covid

It is key for employers to understand and address the challenges presented by long Covid in the workplace

Now that vaccines are widely available, talk of Covid-19 has lapsed into post-pandemic ruminations. We reflect on lessons learned for the most part. But on many fronts, we must deal with lingering effects. These are commonly economic, social, or commercial changes – new norms to which we must adapt to. But one such lingering issue that the region is going to have to come to terms with is Covid itself. Vaccinations, ingenious though they are, will not protect us from “long Covid”.

Long Covid, also referred to as “post-Covid condition”, persists in those who contracted the coronavirus and subsequently recovered. While many may have had slight or no symptoms previously, long Covid can come with hundreds of different complaints. The most common ones reported by patients and clinicians are shortness of breath, sluggish thinking (or “brain fog”) and fatigue. Others include anxiety, chest pain, fever, loss of smell and taste, and depression. People experience their symptoms for anywhere from three to nine months, but given the lifespan of the pandemic, there are a lot of unknowns.

The UAE was one of the most decisive countries in its response to the Covid pandemic, including in its action on vaccination. According to the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority, up to 100 per cent of the country has received at least one vaccine dose and more than 90 per cent are fully vaccinated. But even as things here return to normal, a UAE study held in conjunction with a Covid rehabilitation programme found many here to be struggling with long Covid.

Employer response
Long Covid has wide implications for society, and not just for the medical professionals who diagnose and treat it. In the workplace, people living with this long-term ailment will be less productive because long Covid affects their wellbeing and their ability to focus. Employers across the region will need to assess how they maintain a supportive, inclusive environment to deal with this issue.

As fatigue and breathlessness are two of the most common symptoms, employers should be aware that job performance is bound to be impacted. Commuting alone can sap a sufferer of their energy reserves. Long Covid has a long reach. It can invade many different parts of the body, affecting the nervous and respiratory systems, the heart, the lungs, and more. Long Covid sufferers must also deal with a range of mental health issues on top of their physical symptoms. And often, long Covid not only varies in its effects from patient to patient but can change from day to day within a given sufferer.

For all these reasons and more, it is vital that employers take a personalised, yet flexible and holistic approach to the needs of long Covid sufferers. Healthcare security will be indispensable. Plans will need to allow for different combinations of symptoms. Likewise, corporate policy must reflect those same individual needs. If an employee has symptoms severe enough to warrant time off, contingencies need to be put in place to accommodate this. Other sufferers may just need an adjustment to their schedule.

Need for pragmatism and compassion
In some other cases, symptoms may be severe enough to be categorised as a disability. Employers must decide if they are going to operate purely within legal frameworks that officially define disabilities or whether they will take a pragmatic approach that examines the needs and wellbeing of the individual and acts accordingly.

We live in a time where employees, whether sufferers of long Covid or not, may expect a compassionate response from their organisation. Flexibility, individualised treatment, inclusiveness, and an earnest focus on health and wellbeing – a “life-first” approach if you will – is a top priority for today’s workforces when assessing their employer. The region’s professionals, especially the younger generations, are less tolerant of employer ignorance on physical and mental health issues, especially when it leads to discrimination. Corporate policy that is less than supporting and languishes too much in the legal definition of what constitutes a disability, will prevent people from disclosing illnesses like long Covid. And this is bad for everybody involved.

People need to feel safe in coming forward, which leads us to the importance of compassionate management. If the employee has the wrong kind of relationship with the person to whom they would report their affliction, then they are unlikely to report it. It therefore pays to invest in training for line managers which in turn will create an open-dialogue atmosphere where leaders are aware of these health issues and can respond with empathy and compassion.

Into the unknown… again
There is still so much we do not understand about the symptoms of long Covid, and the length of time patients may have to endure them. Sound strategies on occupational health and wellbeing among employers will not only benefit sufferers; they will allow regional businesses to navigate the impact with the same effectiveness they displayed in overcoming other Covid-related issues at the height of the pandemic. I have every confidence that regional stakeholders will recognise the importance of individualised counselling and support for employees dealing with long Covid. I would further expect to see a continuation of the flexibility shown over the past year when responding to the changing expectations of employees regarding health and wellness issues. Open communication is the target here. It will allow us to face long Covid as we faced its pernicious antecedent.

David Healy is the CEO EMEA at Aetna International

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