Planning an individual’s return to work after illness with Covid-19
It is likely that all businesses, irrespective of their activities, have some staff who will have contracted the Covid-19 virus at some time during the pandemic and some may still be living with Long Covid . Moving towards ‘the new normal’, occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals have a valuable role to play in planning and supporting workers’ return to work. Specifically, they have the skills and experience that enable them to take the lead in implementing a 4-point plan, as follows:
4-point action plan
- Introduce or revise the organisation’s return-to-work policy. Make sure it involves all the key stakeholders in the organisation – Human Resources, management, worker representatives.
- While workers are off-work with illness, it is important to keep in regular contact with them. This is important in the case of workers who have developed Long Covid. Their health status may fluctuate from day to day, requiring frequent reviews of their abilities. Who makes this contact will vary by organisation. How that contact is made may vary with the individual’s preferences and the circumstances of their ill-health. For example, if a worker is hospitalised with Covid-19, contact would need to be with their family rather than directly with them.
- Take a tailored approach – just as keeping in communication during illness needs to be tailored, so does the individual’s return to work.
- A risk assessment of the work tasks will help identify the changes that might support the returning worker. Covid-19 may have affected their physical strength or cognitive abilities, such as concentration spans and these impacts on health need to be accommodated.
- Return-to-work controls such as a phased return to work, flexible working, working from home or changes to responsibilities can be developed. A written plan developed in consultation with the worker and agreed with all key groups will help to assure the worker of a safe return to work. For the worker with Long Covid, the input of an occupational medical practitioner may be necessary to establish the worker’s level of capability.
- Review the plan – as the experience of returning to work develops, there will be lessons to learn for the individual and for the future. For a worker with Long Covid the frequency with which the plan is reviewed will be determined by the current health status.
A ‘return-to-work’ team
Any action plan will work better if it is based on a team approach. At different times, this team could consist of:
- a senior manager
- a manager
- a human resource professional
- a labour or trade union representative
- the OSH professional.
Other professionals – occupational health and medical, for example – may be required to support an individual’s return.
Returning to work with Long Covid
Many workers are returning to work with Long Covid and may need to take repeated episodes of sickness absence, while others may need adaptations to their job as their ability to perform work may be impacted by the symptoms they are experiencing. Symptoms of concern affecting functionality and the ability to cope at work include shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog and chest pain. The usual rules for sickness absence and sick pay will apply to those who are off work due to Long Covid. All cases will require a supportive environment focused on what workers can do rather than what they cannot do. The return-to-work process may be complicated, with success based on a planned approach which addresses physical and cognitive limitations to ensure the health and safety of all workers. Remember that work is good for health and part of the recovery process is returning to a work environment which is adapted to the worker’s capabilities.
Returning to work - the OSH role
The considerations given to workers safely returning to the workplace in the context of Long Covid are the same as those applied under normal circumstances; ie they are risk driven and based on the hierarchy of control. The most significant aspect of the return to work process will be the assessment of their ability to assume their normal work based on the impact Long Covid has on their health. An occupational health practitioner is best suited to assist with this assessment and if provided with an accurate job specification will be able to advise on the adaptations required to accommodate the return to work. The OSH professional is then able to ensure work accommodations are made to facilitate a safe and healthy return.
Returning to work - role of the manager
A key return to work issue is the inclusion of the line manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day safety and health of workers under their control. They need to understand that the effects of Long Covid can fluctuate. Some days the worker might seem well, while on others their symptoms can worsen and they might need to be off work again. It is important to provide individual support to the worker as each case will require assessment depending on symptoms, demands of the job, personal circumstances and the ability to accommodate the worker’s needs in the workplace. Adaptions may vary and include: working from home, flexible working hours, reduced hours and the inclusion of assistive equipment.
Key points are:
- Communicate with the worker and plan their return to work
- Involve the worker in decisions – ask what they need to facilitate a return to work
- Provide support with the return to work, with frequent reviews of the worker’s progress and needs
- Where the manager feels the worker is not coping with their job, additional occupational health assessments may be required.
Returning to work following a bereavement
Covid-19 has resulted in the deaths of family and friends. Grief and mourning will affect workers’ physical and mental health in different ways. In the return-to-work process, particular consideration should be given to individuals who have been, or are experiencing bereavement.
The role of the occupational safety and health professional
The OSH professional’s role in the return-to-work process is critical. They can support good return-to-work practice by:
- giving advice on risk assessments
- promoting the benefits of work to workers’ health and wellbeing
- focusing on what the worker can do and how barriers to their return to work can be removed.
IOSH has a range of guidance available in this area: