“A constellation of symptoms”: Long Covid and mental health
Long Covid can present as a variety of overlapping symptoms which may change over time, and affect any system in the body. Aviva’s associate medical director, Dr Subashini M, described it as “a constellation of symptoms” in a recent update webcast on Covid-19. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that employers need to consider an equally multi-faceted approach when supporting employees in returning to work after suffering from Long Covid.
This is especially true when it comes to protecting mental health. A study published in Lancet Psychiatry, A longer look at COVID-19 and neuropsychiatric outcomes (April 2021), found that 24% of all Long Covid patients were affected by mood, anxiety or psychotic disorders, with these figures further rising among those who had been in hospital, and again among those admitted to intensive care. This suggests that – in addition to any symptoms caused by the virus itself – the traumatic experience of suffering from it may also be compromising mental health.
Putting practical assistance in place
So, what can employers do to help support workers whose mental health is likely to remain vulnerable following a return to work? And equally, how can they put measures in place to help others who may be diagnosed in future?
1. Make sure employees have the right support
Long Covid is a long term condition and, as such, private medical insurance is likely to cover the cost of investigations up to the point of diagnosis, after which it’s likely that that benefit will cease as the treatment required will be long term. However, support may be available for employees’ mental and physical wellbeing through added value benefits, such as wellbeing apps and mental health services.
This is where it’s beneficial to have both private medical insurance and group income protection, as the two benefits complement each other. Private medical insurance is designed to offer shorter term support – whereas group income protection can help to support rehabilitation for a longer period, while providing a financial safety net.
2. Encourage affected employees to get a diagnosis
It’s worth remembering that some sufferers may not even have been aware that they previously had Covid-19 – and it could take several weeks for longer-term issues to become apparent. Since the symptoms can easily be confused with a host of other conditions, it’s important to rule out the possibility that something other than Long Covid is responsible. Cover for any diagnostic tests that will help rule out other conditions may be available under the business’s private medical insurance policy.
3. Get a return to work plan for employees who have been diagnosed
Employers should be able to get help from their insurer to draw up a phased return-to-work plans for employees who have been diagnosed with Long Covid. This might involve short visits to the workplace before a full return, to help them become familiar with any changes introduced while they were away, and to get used to social distancing and infection control practices.
4. Be flexible
As well as phasing a return to work, consider whether a change in working hours, workplace location – or even the role they perform – may be in the best interests of the business and the employee themselves.
5. Address each employee’s needs individually
Long Covid isn’t one condition with one predictable course of progression, different employees will have different symptoms. Their recovery – like the medical treatment they will have received – needs to be scheduled around the particular symptoms they’re experiencing. There’s no single solution to fit everyone.
6. Arrange regular reviews
Long Covid can easily relapse if people overstretch themselves during their recovery. This means it’s important to keep in close touch with affected employees to make sure they aren’t encountering fresh or worsening symptoms. Regular catch-ups are crucial – especially if the employee is working remotely and there’s some risk that they may feel isolated. It’s important to take on board regular feedback on how you can help manage their situation.
7. Supply them with the right equipment
Physical and mental health are closely linked, so it’s important to make sure that a recovering individual isn’t in any discomfort while working. This might involve something as simple as providing an ergonomic chair – for home as well as office workers – or a blue light screen filter.
8. Make sure there’s always someone they can talk to
Regular catch-ups with a line manager or an HR representative are only part of the story. Every organisation needs to develop an open, inclusive culture where people feel free to speak about their concerns – especially those relating to mental health. Not everyone will open up to a manager in the same way they might to a colleague at their own level – appointing wellbeing champions can be a good way to encourage this.
9. Make the most of your provider’s resources
Your workplace benefits provider may offer services such as tools to help improve the mental and physical wellbeing of employees. These will be particularly valuable to employees recovering from Long Covid.
Examples include added value services to help them rebuild their mental resilience and physical fitness to do their job. Services are also available which can support behavioural changes to help manage their condition, as well as providing advice on symptoms such as fatigue. These may be delivered via wellbeing apps, or through an employee assistance programme (EAP). Businesses that don’t have an EAP should be able to get guidance from their provider on how to develop one.
10. Point employees in the right direction for further support
There’s a great deal that can be done within the business itself to help protect mental health, but there will be times when expert or professional help will be needed.
Aviva has produced an employers’ guide to Long Covid which includes a list of places where employers can find more information on all aspects of the condition – and its full ‘constellation’ of symptoms – as well as information on how to access specialist help.
The author is Matt Smith, rehabilitation team manager, Aviva.
This article is provided by Aviva.
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