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Long COVID is still draining many workers. Here’s how it affects productivity

We need to talk about this version of COVID-19—and its very real consequences on workplace efficiency.

Long COVID is still draining many workers. Here’s how it affects productivity
[Photos: Rene Böhmer/Unsplash; Afif Kusuma/Unsplash]

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Since the very first cases of COVID-19 were identified, this new virus has largely confounded the scientific community. But perhaps even more mysterious are the wide-ranging symptoms that many who contracted the virus continue to experience long after the expected recovery period. This phenomenon is known as long COVID, or long-haul COVID.

The severity of long COVID runs the gamut, with some people experiencing relatively minor but somewhat disruptive symptoms and others feeling completely incapacitated. Long-COVID symptoms can linger for a few weeks or months; some people have been living with them for more than two years now. Debilitating long-COVID symptoms occur in a small minority of cases, but they are devastatingly real for the individuals experiencing them.

Despite emerging scientific and abundant anecdotal evidence, there are many people—even in the medical establishment—who remain skeptical of the potential severity of long COVID. I’ve heard countless, heartbreaking stories of those suffering from long COVID whose reports of symptoms and impairments have been casually dismissed by loved ones, friends, managers, and doctors alike.

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Long COVID is unfortunately not going away anytime soon, so employers would be well-served to shift their focus from the short-term impact of the virus to the implications of long-haul COVID for the workforce and how they can best support employees through this challenging illness.

Recurrence

Research findings on the prevalence of long COVID vary greatly. Early estimates predicted that fewer than 10% of those who had COVID-19 would experience long-term symptoms. Several studies found it to be as many as half of research participants. One hypothesized that up to 80% of COVID-19 patients would experience at least one persistent symptom.

New research from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 30% of those treated for COVID-19 (meaning their case was serious enough to require medical care) developed long COVID; this means that nearly one in three people who had severe COVID-19 experiences symptoms long afterward. Among the entire population who has had the virus, about 20% are estimated to have one or more lingering symptoms.

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Symptoms and risk factors

COVID-19 has been shown to potentially cause lasting damage to the lungs, heart, and brain; many common symptoms of long COVID relate to these organs. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Cognitive dysfunction and attention deficit (“brain fog”)
  • Cough
  • Loss of taste/smell
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches (sometimes pounding)
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Memory loss
  • Chest pain/heart palpitations

Fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of sense of smell were the most reported symptoms in the UCLA study. Researchers there found that those most susceptible to long-haul symptoms include people previously hospitalized for the virus, people with diabetes, and those with high and low body mass indexes.

Functioning and productivity

Most people who contract COVID-19 return to work at full capacity within a week or two. However, those experiencing severe long-haul symptoms may have functional impairments that affect productivity.

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Extreme fatigue associated with long COVID can leave workers with little stamina to meet job demands. Brain fog can impede reaction time, memory, and the ability to assimilate new information; performing simple tasks and finding the right words to communicate may become difficult.

In addition, previously healthy individuals carrying the mental burden of their long-haul symptoms and suddenly having difficulty focusing and thinking at work may experience anxiety, stress, depression, and even trauma from not being able to perform as they once did. Fluctuating symptoms make these cognitive and emotional challenges even worse, as employees may not know how they will feel or perform at any given time.

Workers experiencing the effects of long COVID may struggle to reintegrate to the workplace after extended periods of illness or impairment. Some will experience deconditioning, which reduces productivity and increases safety risks. The cardiac, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and cognitive issues associated with long COVID may make it difficult for them to function at full capacity and can lead to more absences from work.

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Employer considerations

The best chance employees have of achieving maximum recovery and resuming full productivity is under the care of high-quality medical providers who specialize in the issues most profoundly affecting them (cardiology, neurology, pulmonology, etc.). These experts are often based at major teaching hospitals and medical facilities. They should be well-versed in the literature on long COVID and take patients’ concerns seriously. Additionally, dedicated COVID-19 treatment clinics have popped up throughout the U.S., offering compassionate and holistic care.

Employers are encouraged to allow employees the needed time away from work to attend appointments and participate in all prescribed therapies. For instance, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs have been shown to help some long-COVID patients rebuild their strength and stamina.

Additionally, employers should prepare for an increase in accommodation requests, such as job restructuring, modified work schedules, and reassignment to open positions. Other options for addressing cognitive and behavioral health issues related to long COVID include job coaching, guided coping strategies to boost productivity, task checklists, allotting extra time for work preparation and assignments, extended work breaks, and apps/software to help with organization and focus.

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An interactive accommodation process—in which employers collaborate with employees on the nature, severity, duration, and resulting limitations of the extended COVID-19-related impairment—generally works best to identify mutually beneficial solutions that maximize productivity and opportunities for all.

Employers must ensure their work environments offer a supportive culture in which self-care and benefits utilization are encouraged, not frowned upon or viewed as a “weakness” or liability. Employees who come forward and ask for benefits guidance, time off, accommodations, or professional help due to long COVID should be treated with empathy, rather than suspected of abusing the system.

Empathy matters

Despite its prevalence, long COVID remains largely unrecognized and fundamentally misunderstood. As a result, experiencing the symptoms of long COVID can be distressing, confusing, and isolating. Therefore, employer support is especially critical in ensuring employees’ physical and emotional well-being.

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Organizations caring for those most adversely affected by long COVID will go a long way in helping them resume full, productive lives.


Teresa Bartlett is the managing director and senior medical officer at Sedgwick.

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