I first noticed the Long COVID issues a couple of months into returning to work from my first bout with COVID,” says theatre nurse Cora Smith*.
“I was extremely tired every day after work - I would take naps during the day when I finished work and, at night, have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. The stairs in work would be a slight challenge most days, and I still required an inhaler.”
Cora lives and works rurally. She has a busy nursing job, which includes long hours on her feet. She says she first contracted COVID-19 in February of 2021 and then again the following Christmas. She says the first instance was by far the worst.
Front line work
“I had been redeployed from my original place of work to work in a COVID ward,” she explains. “On my final week there, on routine testing, it was found I had COVID.
“At the beginning I had no symptoms, but that soon changed,” she continues. “On day 10 of isolation, I rang my GP explaining I felt short of breath and had pain in my chest. He swiftly sent me to A&E, where I spent five hours getting checked over.
Thankfully, they ruled out a clot, but I had a lot of fluid around my lungs. I got sent home and remained in isolation for another four days.
I was off work for a total of five weeks - I didn’t feel right at all. Even then, I still think I went back too soon - but I was going insane at home, not being at work.”
Once back at work, Cora’s colleagues noticed she was still having respiratory problems and urged her to see a specialist.
“The specialist was excellent and saw me quickly, all the tests and checks carried out were clear and I was told I would just have to ride this out and hope my energy levels would return to normal,” she recalls.
“I started going to the gym and going for walks after work, trying to make better use of my energy and make myself tired in the evenings.”
Most employers do not have Long COVID policies in place
Cora says while she didn’t receive any additional sick leave or benefits while living with long COVID, she was paid over the five weeks she was at home recuperating. She is starting to feel better now, but some symptoms remain.
“Extreme fatigue and tiredness, difficulty sleeping at night time and in general just being unwell, my immune system feels very weak and I feel as though I’m constantly getting sick.”
New territory for employers
According to CIPD (the professional body for human resources and people development), Long COVID is tricky to manage in an HR capacity because it is new and medical research is ongoing. Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland, says in their experience, most employers do not have Long COVID policies in place.
“While this is being developed, CIPD recommends proactively managing the absence and following normal long term absence procedures as appropriate, including access to any company sick pay scheme,” she says.
“Long COVID symptoms vary, so discussions with each employee will be critical to identify how it affects them, the impact on their ability to work, and to assess the supports needed.”
Small business woes
Co Kilkenny-based HR consultant and founding chair of CIPD Ireland, Tom Kennedy, says for larger, multinational companies, Long COVID can be well-handled within existing sick leave policies and workplace regulations.
Smaller businesses, however, may have issues supporting employees living with Long COVID in addition to keeping their business running smoothly.
“Busy business owners and line managers are not educated in managing employees living with long term illness and - more especially - Long COVID symptoms, at this time.”
Returning to work too soon is now being claimed to contribute to Long COVID
Tom says a concern is that smaller businesses may put employees under pressure to return to work while convalescing with COVID-19, before they are feeling completely well.
“[Returning to work too soon] is now being claimed to contribute to Long COVID cases and is said to be affecting the mental health of more vulnerable employees,” he says.
“Business owners and line managers need more education about how the symptoms of Long COVID comes in many forms, attacks different organs of the body, can last for months and years and can come and go.”
Long COVID champion
Tom believes a good way for smaller businesses to ensure employees are supported is to appoint a “Long COVID Champion”, whose role is to communicate, identify potential issues with employees living with Long COVID and help set up a plan of action.
“I strongly recommend an Employee Long COVID Champion is appointed from existing staff in small to medium size companies and is provided with basic Long COVID National Health training in order to become the company ‘go-to person’ for Long COVID queries,” he says.
Tom also emphasises the importance of including occupational health professionals in the process. This will help rule out any potential workplace conflict. With employers and other employees having COVID fatigue, some living with Long COVID claim they are not taken seriously or believed by their colleagues.
“Fairness to fellow employees and consideration of Long COVID complaints must be professionally managed - with the help of occupational health advice - to avoid future discrimination or work equality litigation,” Tom states.
“To avoid unfair dismissal claims, employees not capable of reaching normal work targets (after a return from COVID illness) should not be subject to company capability or dismissal procedures for a reasonable period,” he adds.
“Only after follow-up assessment clearance by occupational health confirming COVID could no longer be a factor in holding back job performance.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.
Irish Country Living asked the HSE if they have provided any additional supports to employees living with Long COVID. It has been reported that a disproportionate number of healthcare workers – who were on the front lines of the pandemic – are now living with the effects of Long COVID.
A representative responded, pointing out their established process for supporting healthcare workers out of work following illness or injury.
“This policy would include healthcare workers with Long COVID,” they explain. “The employees will be referred to occupational health, and fitness for work will be assessed. Occupational health will make recommendations for reasonable accommodations, where relevant, in order to support the employees in returning to work.”