Covid has deeply altered our Iives and workplaces. One effect that is still somewhat of a mystery but is likely to be with us for years is Long Covid. With symptoms varying from person to person and no clear course of treatment, this new disease is already having an impact on employers. To help you mitigate its effect on your employees, we will talk about what the disease looks like, its impact on the workplace, resources that are available, and what you can do to help.
What is Long Covid?
Because there is no clear set of symptoms, the working definition is “an illness which occurs within three months of the onset of Covid-19 and involves symptoms that last at least two months with no clear diagnosis.”
The most common symptoms of Long Covid are fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive impairment, as well as depression and anxiety. With the exception of shortness of breath, these symptoms can also be found in other conditions with no known cause or cure such as Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia.
Long Covid involves multiple systems including the brain, heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Another mystery is that it doesn’t just affect those who were seriously ill or unvaccinated. However, people who appear to be most at risk were hospitalized for Covid, have a high Body Mass Index, or are over age 35. It occurs more often amongst women.
It’s unclear what causes Long Covid but it appears to be an autoimmune response and is more prevalent for those who received ICU care; very little is known and it appears to have multiple causes.
Treatment thus far is aimed at managing symptoms with rehabilitation tailored to individual needs. Limited government support is available, though BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec have established Long Covid clinics. Various support groups have been set up by those suffering from the disease.
Impact on Employers
Employers already significantly underestimate the presence of chronic disease in their workforce. When faced with an employee suffering from a chronic disease, management is generally ill-equipped to provide support and accommodations to workers. However, with Long Covid as with many other health issues, early intervention is key to improvement and recovery.
One of the most important supports an employer can provide is empathy. Building awareness and policies at all levels of the company to help those suffering. Provide support through accommodations in an employee’s work schedule or through changes in duties. As well, highlight the resources available to help manage their condition. All of these will help mitigate the impact of presenteeism, casual absences, and disability leaves that accompany chronic disease.
Virtual care which offers a continuum of services from stress management through to return to work training is often key to providing early intervention and ensuring that employees adhere to their treatment plan. Many insurance carriers have partnered with providers offering a continuum of care and it is also possible to engage with specialty carriers.
Long Covid is exacerbating the mental health crises and additional support is needed. A recent survey of 250,000 people diagnosed with Covid-19 determined that 30% of them developed mental health issues after recovering. This appears to be further evidence in support of other recent studies that have concluded that some mental health conditions which develop after the onset of a viral illness may be caused by the virus.
Unfortunately, despite the rise in general awareness surrounding mental health issues and the increase in available resources, there are still barriers to access. One barrier is embarrassment. Society as a whole still feels that those suffering from anxiety, depression or other conditions are somehow weak or bringing it upon themselves. We still do not view an injured brain with the same sympathy as we view an injured limb. Having a positive attitude among supervisors, managers, and executives within your organization toward seeking assistance for all types of healthcare is key to whether or not your people will seek help.
Cost also remains a factor. While virtual mental health care is more affordable than in person visits with a psychologist, the course of in-person treatment can often run $3500 to $6000 in a year. Most employee benefit plans only provide $500 per year for psychologists visits. And even for those employers offering more generous reimbursement levels, finding a practitioner can be a challenge. Employers can address this in a variety of ways.
Another resource is a Mental Health Coach. This benefit is often included in the extended health offering of most insurance carriers. And is also available separately through a specialty carrier. The purpose of the mental health coach is to help the employee to take action and stay on track with their treatment plan allowing for a faster recovery.
What Employers Can Do
In addition to having empathy, being proactive, and providing support, employers need to have an overall strategy for dealing with chronic disease in general and Long Covid in particular. It’s not enough just to add more resources. Employee communication is key. Your team needs to know how and where to access support as well as the specific types of support that are available. There also needs to be sufficient allowances built into the benefits plan to allow for meaningful reimbursement levels. However, there is always a cost to increasing coverage in a plan. This is where the strategy also comes into play. It’s important to look at days absent, productivity levels, and benefits usage to help establish a baseline and determine if changes in policy such as increasing mental health support results in lower costs in other areas of the benefits plan and/or a reduction in sick days. Your benefits advisor can provide technical analysis which will examine usage data before and after changes are made.
While the percentage of your employees suffering from Long Covid is likely small, its impact can be large. It is expected that over time Long Covid will result in a greater number of Long Term Disability claims as well as increased benefit plan costs, and lower productivity. It is important that employers make themselves aware of the condition and develop a plan to help support their people.