Navigating the long-term effects of Long Covid on employee productivity


Community conversation on the lingering consequences of Long Covid.

During a recent CHRO South Africa Community Conversation, Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, chief clinical officer at Discovery Health, said that while the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided, the impact of Long Covid is akin to a tsunami, adding that, “It’s becoming increasingly clear that many individuals are suffering beyond the acute phase of Covid-19, with Long Covid presenting a significant challenge in the workplace.”

The hidden toll of Long Covid

Long Covid presents with a range of symptoms, with fatigue, brain fog, and loss of smell or taste being the most impactful on work performance. “Brain fog and fatigue can be easily overlooked, particularly in individuals who were not hospitalised. As a result, it can be challenging to identify and treat these debilitating symptoms, and there is no standard treatment yet available. Proper assessment and management are crucial, as the healthcare system is not yet equipped to treat Long Covid effectively,” said Dr Nematswerani.

She emphasised that it is essential for HR professionals to be aware of the signs of Long Covid in the workplace, including declining productivity, irritability, anxiety, loss of concentration, and a general feeling of not being oneself. She highlighted that the pressure to deliver results can exacerbate these symptoms, creating further anxiety and stress for those affected.

It is worth noting that Long Covid can require treatment for more than six months, with some studies showing about 71 percent of those affected require ongoing support. Therefore, it is crucial for employers to take a proactive approach to supporting their employees, including providing access to medical care and flexible working arrangements.

Why Long Covid deserves more recognition

Dr Nematswerani brought to light the physical and psychological effects of Long Covid in the workplace, which are often mistaken for poor performance. She said, “This mismanagement can lead to individuals resigning from their jobs without receiving the proper diagnosis or support. The culture of the organisation also plays a significant role in determining whether individuals feel safe to open up about their experiences. Unfortunately, many individuals suffer in silence and are hesitant to seek help due to the stigma surrounding Long Covid.”

It is imperative to create a safe and supportive workplace where individuals feel comfortable discussing their experiences. This will not only help those who are struggling with Long Covid but also create a more inclusive and understanding work environment. By providing the necessary support and resources, organisations can ensure that their employees receive the care they need to recover and thrive.
She said that it is important to recognise that Long Covid is a real and debilitating condition that can have a significant impact on an individual’s life. “By acknowledging this and taking steps to support those affected, organisations can demonstrate their commitment to the wellbeing of their employees.”

The Long Covid experience in South Africa

The impact of Long Covid symptoms on an individual’s ability to perform their job functions cannot be overstated, particularly in roles that require concentration and precision. One of the executives in attendance emphasised the importance of compassion and proper procedures when dealing with employees who may be experiencing Long Covid symptoms.

However, Sashir Milne, chief people officer at Tongaat Hulett, raised concerns about the potential misdiagnosis of Long Covid symptoms as burnout. Dr Nematswerani stressed the need for more education at all levels of management to ensure that those who have been affected receive the necessary support. It is crucial to hold managers accountable for understanding and creating an environment where people can come forth without fear of stigma or discrimination.

Makgotso Letsitsi, head of people, citizenship and transformation at KPMG South Africa, emphasised the need for more awareness among HR and society as a whole. It is crucial to provide support and prevent people from being managed out of the organisation due to a lack of understanding and support. Addressing the stigma surrounding Long Covid is essential without re-stigmatizing those experiencing it.

Creating a supportive workplace environment for Long Covid survivors

Dr Nematswerani emphasised the importance of prioritising education about Long Covid in the workplace. This involves raising awareness about the symptoms and providing information on where to seek help. To support employees impacted by Long Covid, organisations should consider implementing supportive policies, providing resources for employee wellbeing, fostering open communication, and offering flexibility.

Rehabilitation is a critical component of Long Covid management, according to Dr Nematswerani. “It is crucial to allow for a reasonable adaptation period, as individuals may improve at different paces. Employers should offer flexible working options to those struggling with Long Covid and provide support to access scheme benefits and employee benefits like disability. Interventions must be tailored to the needs of the patient, taking into consideration severity of symptoms.”

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