BY Naa’ilah Abader AND Pareen Rogers
In for the long haul? Managing employees who suffer from long COVID
Among the other challenges facing employers in the COVID-19 pandemic is the increasing prevalence of “long COVID”. Although not much is known about long COVID at this time, there are some proactive measures that employers can take to identify and manage it in the workplace.
At present, there is no official medical definition of long COVID. What we do know is that some people experience symptoms that last for weeks or months after they have contracted COVID-19. Recent research has indicated that between 10% and 30% of those individuals who have suffered from acute COVID-19 will go on to suffer from long COVID.
There are almost 200 different symptoms associated with long COVID that may impact on an employee’s ability to perform their duties.
In order to be able to adequately deal with long COVID, employers will need to understand it and create appropriate levels of awareness of the condition in the workplace. Awareness campaigns utilising internal and possible external service providers could provide a good basis for this.
Some issues to consider in relation to accommodating employees who suffer from long COVID in the workplace
- Long COVID does not place an obligation on employers to provide employees with any additional sick leave and neither does it alter the current legal position relating to ill health/incapacity processes. However, employers should review their sick leave and other applicable policies to ensure that they cater for instances of long COVID, albeit in a general sense. A condition that differs from person to person can only be properly managed through flexible policies and procedures.
- Long COVID may also require that employers carefully consider the reasonable accommodation of employees who have contracted the condition, particularly in the context of remote working where physical interaction with colleagues is limited and the workplace has become a nebulous concept. Employee wellness programmes will become increasingly important in this context.
- There may be instances of long COVID that persist for long periods of time and employers should therefore engage with their insurers or with any relevant pension/provident fund to determine whether such cases may be considered a temporary or a permanent disability.
- From a legal perspective, it may be possible for certain instances of long COVID to be considered a disability for the purposes of the Employment Equity Act,1998 and the Code of Good Practice on the Employment of People with Disabilities. This depends on whether the condition results in employees having a physical or mental impairment which is long-term or recurring and which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment. Employers would then need to consider the reasonable accommodation of these employees and to ensure that these employees are not unfairly discriminated against.
- While each case may be different, and therefore require differing approaches to the condition, it is important for employers to put general processes in place to ensure that they act fairly and objectively and to avoid the risk of unfair discrimination
Practical guidance for employers going forward
The difficulty with managing instances of long COVID is that employers and employees may be unaware of this condition and/or not know how to deal with it. In our view, information sharing sessions with all employees (in the form of FAQ documents and the like) and guideline documents for managers are key to managing the process going forward, given that employers are effectively navigating unchartered waters.
Creating an awareness that long COVID exists may result in employees approaching their medical practitioners for assistance and being properly medically diagnosed. From an employer’s perspective, line managers, with guidance from the human resources department, will be better placed to identify employees who are suffering from long COVID and to encourage them to obtain a proper medical diagnosis. Advice can then be sought from medical practitioners regarding treatment plans.
Employers will need to be agile and flexible in considering reasonable accommodation for employees, and ultimately a phased return to work. Where long COVID presents itself to be more permanent in nature, employers will need to utilise their incapacity processes and consider the possibility of medical boarding.
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