Many people infected with COVID-19 continue to experience symptoms after four weeks, and sometimes months, complicating their return to work. Managers play a vital role in ensuring they are safely reintegrated into the workplace, according to Europe's peak work safety body.
In a new guide, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) says there are a number of steps managers should take to ensure workers with "long COVID" have the "best chance of getting back to work safely and staying at work".
The agency has also released a guide for workers recovering from COVID-19.
"There is still much to learn about the impact of COVID-19, but research studies reveal that: one in five people has symptoms after four weeks, and one in 10 has symptoms for 12 weeks or longer," it says.
Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, breathlessness, chest pain, muscle and joint pain and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Some patients experience difficulty thinking and finding the right words, loss of sense of smell, skin rashes and loss of appetite.
Long COVID can involve unusual patterns like relapses with new and sometimes unusual symptoms. "An initially mild or even asymptomatic case can be followed by severe symptoms markedly affecting day-to-day activities," EU-OSHA says.
The unpredictable and fluctuating nature of the illness can make it difficult for affected workers to return to work, and managers are best placed to provide appropriate support and job modifications and adjustments to help them cope, it says.
Agreeing on modifications and early support are crucial.
Managers do not need to be experts on COVID-19, or "have all the answers" to help workers return to work, but it's important they listen to their concerns and act where they can, EU-OSHA says.
"Each person will require different levels of support depending on their role, long-term symptoms, work environment and personal situation. It is important to listen to the returning worker's needs and concerns, allow them to be proactive in making changes that allow them to manage their health and work, and work together to find solutions that work for them and your team," it says.
It says to give returning workers the best chance of getting back to work safely managers should follow these five steps:
- Stay in touch with workers while they are off sick with COVID-19 and let them know the employer is there to help and support them. Managers should discuss with workers what information they agree to share with colleagues and clients and the health support services available to them.
- Prepare for a worker's return by ascertaining whether they will require a medical clearance, arrange a "return-to-work conversation" with the worker to develop a plan, and seek advice from their GP and occupational practitioners on workplace modifications.
- Determine what job modifications are workable and ask workers to do the same. Managers should ensure workers come to the return-to-work meeting prepared to discuss how their condition might impact their work, what tasks they feel able to do and what modifications will help them.
- Support workers in the early days of their return, by welcoming them back on the first day, giving them permission to take things slowly to prevent them from being overwhelmed and reminding them of the agreed work priorities, schedule and modifications.
- Provide ongoing support and reviews of workloads. "This is where things are a bit different from the usual return-to-work procedure. Because the symptoms after COVID-19 fluctuate and change over time, it is even more important that workloads/job modifications are regularly reviewed," EU-OSHA says.
"Irrespective of vaccination rollout, or return to work for those recovered, maintain the recommended infection control measures (including social distancing, regular handwashing/hygiene and face covering use) to prevent the spread of the virus," EU-OSHA advises workplaces.
If members need assistance with the WHS implications of employees returning to work after COVID, please contact the WR team on firstname.lastname@example.org, or on 8291 2000.