What were you doing this time two years ago? For some of us, life almost appears to be back to ‘normal’ – the restricted life we experienced through the Covid-19 pandemic a distant memory.
But for others, this is far from the case; the pandemic is not over, Covid-19 infections persist, and the easing of restrictions for some, particularly for the most vulnerable, has only resulted in additional precautions and heightened anxiety.
And, for people suffering from Long-Covid, their experience of a presumed new normal is greatly impacted by their symptoms.
In this article, we look at some of the impacts of Long-Covid on work, and the basis for the campaign to recognise Long-Covid as a disability.
The scale of the problem
In August 2021, 970,000 people in the UK self-reported having Long-Covid, and in January 2023, this had risen to 2 million people. In Scotland, University of Edinburgh research has estimated that around one in 50 has suffered from lasting illness after contracting Covid-19, with a study from the University of Glasgow finding one in 20 suffering Long-Covid.
Older women from communities that disproportionately experience deprivation were at higher risk, as were people who already suffered from respiratory issues, or conditions that include fatigue.
Many people who contract Long-Covid recover fully, and relatively quickly. However, a significant number of people experience varying symptoms that linger, for weeks, months and years after contracting the virus. Long-Covid is an umbrella term for all these longer terms and lingering effects experienced after contracting Covid-19. For most people, the symptoms will fluctuate, but commonly include:
- cognitive dysfunction
- difficulty breathing
People will experience these issues differently depending on their existing symptoms and circumstances, including the impact of their daily activities and their ability to rest and take regular breaks. Unfortunately, we know fatigue related problems and ‘hidden’ disabilities are not very well understood by employers, which may make it more difficult to negotiate successfully for reasonable adjustments.
‘Disability’ – a protected characteristic
The Equality Act (2010) is the legal basis which protects against discrimination arising from a person’s protected characteristic, such as whether they are disabled. Within this legislation, a person is considered disabled if they have:
- a physical or mental impairment,
- which has a substantial (which has been held to mean ‘more than minor or trivial’) and long-term adverse effect,
- on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
This definition includes both physical and mental conditions and variations, as well as fluctuating conditions (such as menopause). In most cases, ‘long-term’ means 12 months or more, however people with cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis are considered disabled from the point of diagnosis.
‘Normal day-to-day activities’ are understood as activities that people do on a regular basis in their everyday life as opposed to work, e.g. climbing stairs, getting in and out of a car, or reaching and bending.
Long-Covid and work
The Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), who provide clinical guidelines for the NHS in Scotland, define Long- Covid as symptoms lasting more than 4 weeks after contracting the virus. However, it is not until 12 months of suffering that, currently, it can be considered a disability.
The implications of Long-Covid, for individuals, for the workplace, and for wider society, are not yet fully understood. The Office of National Statistic Long Covid Report published in March 2022, found that the occupational prevalence of self- reported Long-Covid was highest among education workers.
A 2023 Trade Union Congress Report on Long-Covid at Work found half of respondents suffering Long-Covid believe they contracted Covid-19 at work. Half of the 3,097 people surveyed were not given any or all of the changes needed to return to work, and half were not given the changes they required to manage their job. Respondents reported being treated unfairly, being questioned on whether they really had Long-Covid and about the impact of their symptoms.
Adjusting to the impact of Long-Covid
Sometimes there is a disagreement with the employer about whether the worker would ‘qualify’ as disabled. However, the employer’s duty to not discriminate means that if they could suspect that a person ‘may be’ disabled, reasonable adjustments may apply. Employers should respect the dignity and privacy of the worker, when considering whether a person may be disabled, and they should not wait for confirmation before putting in place reasonable adjustments for a person – where it can be reasonably assumed that the person is disabled. The focus should be on meeting the needs of the worker, rather than scrutinising their ability. There should be no need to await a formal Long-Covid diagnosis (which may be difficult to obtain), before the employer puts appropriate support in place that might help.
Making moves in recovery
The EIS subscribes to a social model of ‘disability’ which understands that a person’s disability is caused by the way society is organised. As most of society is organised and structured for people who are not disabled, this excludes and causes barriers to disabled people. The solution, therefore, must be to remove any barriers so that disabled people can participate equally in society and in work.
Reasonable adjustments will be key to enabling workers who suffer from Long-Covid to participate at work. However, despite the NHS definition – it is not yet recognised as a disability. This will undoubtedly impact the ability of workers to make the case for adjustments to be put in place, despite the duty on the employer to support their health and safety and dignity at work – and the duty to proactively implement measures that will prevent discrimination of disabled people.
Furthermore, the evidence cited above highlights the higher prevalence rate of the virus in education workers, and therefore the potential for disproportionate impact by Long-Covid. In Scotland, there are interesting developments which may help recognise this. Mark Griffin MSP is proposing a Scottish Industrial Injuries Council Bill, which includes Long-Covid as a workplace injury. The STUC Disabled Workers Committee is working to support this proposed bill as it develops.
Long-Covid is a workplace issue, affecting many, who are suffering in silence. To ensure we protect workers affected, we can educate ourselves and others about the symptoms, and demand better from employers, as well as join in the call for recognition.