HR Indaba Network webinar reveals how businesses must prepare for Long Covid

Alexander Forbes’s Myrna Sachs says the evidence is there that lasting Covid-19 systems exist.

As Covid-19 continues to plague communities and countries, companies now have to consider the implications of ‘Long Covid’ and its lasting impact on employee wellness, absenteeism rates and productivity.

During the CHRO webinar titled The Long Covid challenge, Myrna Sachs, head of health management solutions at Alexander Forbes, and Dr Salim Ahmed, occupational medical consultant at Life EHS, covered the lingering effects of Covid-19 and how companies can manage its impact.

Salim provided an insightful presentation on the clinical overview of Long Covid, debunking any myths around its existence. He explained that the signs and symptoms of acute Covid can last up to four weeks, but clinical characteristics of the virus are now presenting months later in some individuals.

Although these lingering effects do not yet have a consistent medical term, being referred to as long Covid, chronic Covid syndrome or long-haul Covid, there is consistency in the long-term health effects of Covid-19 infection.

These include persistent mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, low quality of life and physical complications.

“The data shows persistent symptoms whether the infection was mild or severe. In South Africa, of those infected, 80 percent were mild and 20 percent moderate or severe. In many mild cases, people may not have gone for confirmation testing and not all moderate or severe cases have been managed in a hospital setting,” he pointed out.

Subtle signs

According to Salim, Long Covid can occur after both mild and severe cases and people may not recognise the subtle signs of Long Covid so they would not seek help.

Myrna noted that long-term symptoms can manifest in varying degrees of severity, disappear and then reoccur. “New studies are coming up all the time. The evidence is there, it’s not hearsay,” she said.

According to Myrna, memory loss, exhaustion, brain fog and fatigue are some of the long-term effects that people are experiencing, leading to a decline in overall health-related quality of life.

“It is similar to autoimmune conditions: there is an increase in inflammatory markers, and the neurological and psychological effects are sometimes more difficult. With a physical disability, it can be seen and understood, but with psychological conditions, it is not as easy to see,” she explained.

This can be exacerbated by people playing down the symptoms as they don’t realise what is happening and return to work prematurely. Myrna advised HR leaders to put interventions in place to deal with the unique situation.

“You don’t need a new policy. It’s about managing expectations of the employee and employer. Understand the residual impairments, consider accommodated positions and a graded, facilitated, return-to-work approach,” she said.

She further advocates for a return-to-work interview process, supported by mental healthcare support services and resources, facilitated reintegration, empowering self-efficacy, and clear, honest and open communication with employees.

Sick data

Absenteeism data can also assist in identifying employees at risk. The sick absenteeism ratio trend statistics over the past three years, which were presented by Myrna during the webinar, showed a ratio of 2.16 in 2017, rising incrementally to 2.22 in 2019 and dropping to 1.63 in 2020. However, in the first three months of 2021, this ratio was at 2.42

“With work-from-home set-ups, people were not taking sick leave. They would work a bit, rest when they could and then continue working. They never fully recovered and took longer to get better. This is a parallel process with Long Covid,” she explained.

The good news is that people with long-term symptoms can be productive.

Myrna recommends that companies adopt a holistic approach to managing Long Covid in the workplace. This means that occupational health, EAP support, absenteeism and incapacity investigation and management and a return-to-work strategy need to be interwoven.

“Early interventions and monitoring processes must be in place. This can be telephonic or virtual status check-in, support to assist with short-term difficulties and longer-term management, and further referral for medical intervention,” she said.

“It is an integrated approach, with cross referral between the EAP and company medical schemes as well as employee wellbeing support internally,” she added.

Salim concluded by reminding attendees that there are many known unknowns with Covid-19 and advised all attendees and their colleagues to continue with standard safety protocols to prevent and mitigate infection in workplaces and on a personal level too.

Prevention after all is better than cure, and with Covid-19, this includes sanitising, social distancing and masking.