Dr Karen Michell: Employers can offer multiple support options for employees’ physical health

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, we all know, took the world by storm. While we soon learnt that most people who contracted the virus would get better, what became apparent later was that full recovery was not going to be the reality for everyone.

In the UK alone an estimated 1.3 million people have developed long Covid. There are two official definitions to describe the condition and its duration. ‘Ongoing symptomatic Covid-19’ describes those who are still symptomatic four to 12 weeks after onset. ‘Post-Covid-19 syndrome’, meanwhile, describes those who are still symptomatic more than 12 weeks after the original infection.

The impact Covid-19 has on the individual varies from person to person, with more than 50 symptoms having been described. Fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pains and weakness, difficulty concentrating (brain fog) and headaches are the most common.

These are all symptoms that potentially interfere with a worker’s ability to complete their work tasks effectively.

Consider the accountant working with numbers and spreadsheets all day who struggles to concentrate, or the construction worker required to be physically active for a full shift. Both workers for different reasons will not be able to perform to full capacity and be liable to make mistakes, which may result in errors, or worse, an accident at work.

Despite possible physical limitations, work is an important part of the rehabilitation process, and it is beneficial to both worker and employer to facilitate a managed return to work.

An employer can progress this through a multidisciplinary team approach to individualised workplace accommodations allowing for a flexible return to work. A few suggestions include hybrid models of work, altered working hours, shortened shifts and reallocation to less strenuous tasks.

Employers can provide occupational health services offering job-specific advice and interventions for worker-focused healthcare. The benefit is the ability to manage a worker’s health and integration back into the workplace based on the demands of his or her occupational risk profile.

Employee assistance programmes can provide additional support to workers, as do many of the employee benefits available such as access to private medical insurance, health cash-back schemes, lifestyle benefits, discounted gym contracts and leisure activities.

Employees, we all know, are an employer’s most valuable asset. Ensuring their healthy and effective return to work is a long-term investment in not only the worker’s wellbeing but also the financial success of the organisation.

Dr Karen Michell is research programme lead (occupational health) at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health