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Long COVID continues to be a challenge for employers; should they be concerned that this variant is going to make things worse? Even with the global pandemic of COVID-19 see-sawing, with an increasing number of cases attributable to newer sub-variants, countries are beginning to revive, repair and restore their economies. TheHealthSite.com spoke to Dr Vikram Vora, Medical Director, India Subcontinent, International SOS to understand the topic in detail. Here are some thoughts shared by the expert.
As nations relax their COVID-mandated restrictions, organizations are now focused on getting the workforce back into offices. Most companies have decided to adopt a hybrid model of working with employees splitting their time between working from the office and home. However, even with the toning down of the severity of the disease caused by the virus, the spectre of long COVID continues to loom over workplaces, causing serious concerns for employers.
Long COVID is defined as "a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems, 4 or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19". A growing number of those infected and "seemingly" recovered, are reporting a continuation of fluctuating symptoms like extreme fatigue, headaches, cough, palpitations, mood swings, sleep disturbances and most significantly brain fog. Symptoms like attention deficit, inability to concentrate, spatial disorientation and can result in acceleration of cognitive decline by several years.
Research done by the National Institutes of Health in the US shows that almost 30% of those who get infected suffer from Long COVID. In a global survey of workforces, 42% of employees reported a decline in their mental wellbeing since the start of the pandemic. 28% reported having difficulties in concentration and 20% are taking longer to complete their tasks. 15% have trouble thinking, reasoning or deciding.
The impact of this on workplace productivity can be significant. A recent report from the CIPD UK shows that almost 2% of the population is affected by long COVID and those between 35-69 years were most susceptible.
What has certainly not helped is the continuing evolution of the virus itself with newer variants and sub-variants complicating the situation. After the Delta variant, there has been only one major variant Omicron. But Omicron itself is evolving more rapidly than any other previously studied virus. BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.2.12, BA.2.12.1, BA.2.38, BA,2.75, BA.3, BA.4, BA.5 the list continues. Each of these sub-variants is more transmissible than the earlier one and as a consequence, more infections are being reported (although causing lesser severe disease).
Long COVID is less frequent with Omicron than it is with Delta and some studies show a 24-50% decline in the rate of prolonged symptoms. Unfortunately, this reduction in rate does not translate into a decreased number of long COVID cases because Omicron sub-variants are more transmissible, and the absolute number of sufferers is higher.
Symptoms are unpredictable with alternate periods of recovery and relapse with almost 85% of sufferers reporting worsening symptoms. Apart from consequent absenteeism, the damaging effect of presenteeism in such cases could cause irreparable damage both to employees as well as employers. This will require organizations to be mindful of hours at work rather than hours-away-from work to ensure proper recovery and the return of healthy and engaged employees. Not providing the required support may lead to attrition and a significant loss of talent. In an already depleted skills pool across several industries, this can increase recruitment and training costs.
Efforts are needed at both levels individual and organizational. Individuals need to understand and accept their condition and pace themselves to recover slowly.
At an organisational level, leaders and managers must be enabled to act as facilitators and support the workforce as it braces for the change of returning to offices after over 2 years. Leadership teams must factor in future health events in all business continuity planning. Adequate training of line managers to correctly identify issues with employees and providing them access to expert professional guidance will help break existing barriers. Human resource teams will need to work on developing and disseminating communication based on expert medical advice, enabling a flexible return to work policies and employee assistance.
Organisational Support to your long-COVID employees: Part of an employer's Duty of Care, providing easy access to quality care treatment for long-COVID employees is crucial. Should there be a simple question on their condition or a need for medical assistance, ensure employees can have access to qualified medical professionals at any time.
Organisations need to Reinforce mental health and well-being agenda: Mental health and emotional struggles are the most important stigma of the COVID-19 pandemic. If individuals who suffered from COVID-19 recovered, they still have a higher probability to experience emotional health issues. There is an even higher risk for people with long COVID. Make sure your people's emotional needs are addressed by dedicated experts through an appropriate Employee Assistance Programme. Employees should be provided with a route to confidentially discuss their emotional health issues away from their direct managers and teams. This could be with HR or independent expert support activated by the company and should be communicated widely and consistently. Counselling support services will help you assist your workforce encountering psychological issues.
The end of the pandemic of COVID infections may be in sight but there is a larger pandemic of mental ill-health that is yet to be faced. The challenges this time around will be as great, if not greater, than what the world has experienced. It's time to prepare for a prolonged war against mental ill-health.
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