Although COVID-19 has dominated the news for more than a year, particular aspects of its effect on business have been neglected. We’ve heard a lot about furloughing and the shift to homeworking, but much less about so-called ‘long COVID’ and the ways it’s likely to impinge on the work of the nation’s HR departments. This lack of coverage is surprising, because the impact in question is likely to be significant.
For a start, long COVID is commoner than most people realise. Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that as many as one in five of those who test positive for COVID-19 will go on to experience symptoms that last for five weeks or longer, with one in 10 still having problems 12 weeks or more after initial infection.
Then there’s the non-trivial nature of the symptoms produced. They include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhoea, memory issues, depression and anxiety.
From an HR perspective, the later entrants on that list may turn out to be the most significant. The effects of coronavirus on mental health have as yet gone largely unexplored, but a recent paper published in ‘The Lancet’ suggested that as many as 20% of COVID-19 patients were developing depression, anxiety and even dementia within three months of diagnosis.
The ‘Lancet’ research shows how the physical symptoms of long COVID can shade into more general mental health issues. The distress associated with going onto a ventilator is well-understood in the medical community. Research suggests that as many as a third of patients who have received such treatments go on to display symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Given the large numbers of coronavirus patients who were subjected to invasive ventilation, post-COVID PTSD may be on course to join Gulf War Syndrome!
COVID in context
Health insurer Vitality famously published statistics indicating that UK businesses lost an average of 38 working days per employee due to physical and mental health issues, and that those absences ultimately cost the British economy £92 billion. The kicker is that those are 2019 figures, predating the coronavirus epidemic. The economic ‘big picture’ for 2020 is likely to be even worse.
While we as employers can’t yet quantify the effects of COVID-19 on the UK economy, we can do our best to mitigate them. For example, we’re uniquely equipped to recognise when an employee is floundering, especially where they’ve tried to force an early return to full-time work. Such cases, known to HR departments as ‘presenteeism’, will become extremely common in the months to come. Offering the affected employee a phased return or flexible working hours can make all the difference to their morale and, ultimately, their productivity.
LeavePlanner’s absence management software provides a powerful asset for employers confronting such issues. It enables them to track unusual behaviours on the part of individual employees and to identify trends across their entire workforces. Give us a ring – we’re as keen as you are to return to Business As Usual.