28 May 2021

Covid legacy will be a long journey back to work for many

Just over a year ago Covid-19 took on the global force of a pandemic. Just about every country in the world would have to bow to the devastating impact this would have on our health, our economies and our quality of life. Despite the desperate death toll there was hope as millions recovered from this cruel disease and we began to find ways to limit the spread of infection and establish a new normal. But, for many, this return to ‘normal’ has not been the journey they were hoping for, with as many as 10 % of Covid-19 patients left living with Long Covid.

What is Long Covid?

Long Covid is a diverse syndrome in patients who are still experiencing symptoms of the disease more than 28 days after testing positive for Covid-19. The symptoms affect multiple body systems with commonly reported symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pains, chest pain, cognitive impairment, headache, and psychological disorders. It is difficult to predict who will develop Long Covid but what is clear is that it is more likely to be seen in people with pre-existing health conditions, who are over 50, obese, female and have had more than five Covid-19 symptoms.

Work and Long Covid

This is a debilitating condition and a patient’s health will fluctuate as symptoms progress or resolve.  Healthcare requires a multidisciplinary team approach focused on rehabilitation and symptom management. The NHS has established nearly 70  Long Covid clinics and several occupational safety and health organisations, including IOSH, have developed guidelines to assist managers with the return to work (RTW) process.  A significant aspect of this journey back to work is assessing a worker’s ability to assume their normal work, with attention given to those with unresolved cardiac, respiratory or neurological symptoms. Long Covid symptoms affecting the ability to cope at work include shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog and chest pain. Whether it is physical restrictions (shortness of breath) or cognitive impairment (brain fog), you are managing workers who may be unable to cope with work for entirely different reasons, necessitating an individualised approach to care.

So, it is important to include the line manager and the worker in in decision making. Ask the worker for suggestions on working life adjustments (such as working from home, flexible working hours etc) to facilitate RTW. Address the mental health issues through good communication and provide realistic reassurances and advice where necessary. A worker may experience highs and lows and functionality will need to be monitored regularly to accommodate these transitions.

What does the future hold?

The impact of Covid 19 has been massive and its legacy will continue to be felt through Long Covid. It is not clear how long it will take workers to fully recover from Long Covid but there’s a real prospect we’ll have to manage the safety and health of workers with Long Covid for years to come. Successful integration into the workplace will very much call for a collaborative approach, with the wellbeing of the worker, the patient at the centre.

Further information


Dr Karen Michell

Research Programme Lead Occupational Health