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How to support staff post-COVID and look out for the red flags

‘Long COVID’ also known as ‘post-COVID-19 Syndrome’ is when the COVID-19 symptoms last weeks or months after the infection has gone. Being able to spot the signs and symptoms of Long Covid amongst employees will be vital over the coming months for UK companies. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott offers the following advice to employers on how to detect whether a member of staff could be suffering from Long Covid, signs to look out for and how to fully support them.

support staff post-COVID

Red flags – signs and symptoms of Long Covid:

  • Periods of unexplained breathlessness
  • Long term headaches
  • Unexplained joint pain
  • Unexplained fatigue, especially after exertion
  • Sudden onset severe depression

In these cases, specialist services are needed, and the role of HR would be to support the staff member into those via their GP. Long Covid treatment is in the form of specialist rehabilitation services and it’s unlikely your Occupational Health service will cover this. It is crucial that HR teams will need to liaise with the specialist external services to look at either back to work planning after a leave of absence or reduced working hours.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments:

“Long Covid is more akin to disability than a period of illness. Workplaces are likely to see a significant increase in anxiety-based problems or depression issues. There is likely to be significant health anxiety amongst staff returning to office-based work. In general, it’s best to take a back to work approach as you would for any period of anxiety-based illness absence. Over a month and a half bring staff back up to full duties and this should avoid most of the problems. This is called exposure-based therapy which is part of cognitive behavioural therapy. Provide information on risk management and offer short term counselling via your OH services where you have them to help people who don’t naturally adjust and develop coping mechanisms.” 

Rise in mental health issues in the UK workforce post-Covid

It’s important to note that other anxiety-based disorders, eating disorders, substance or alcohol misuse, obsessive-compulsive disorders may present more and in more severe forms. Often this will look like a series of small absences, a day here, a day there over a period of time. It could be this pattern of absence has already been flagged, but if not it’s worth looking out for. It indicates a staff member is struggling with something acute, it could also be for example domestic abuse. This pattern of relatively often but small amounts of absence should trigger relatively quickly an interview to find out what is going wrong. 

Mental health related staff absences

In general, anxiety is relatively easy to manage and treat and shouldn’t need any absence from work. In fact, being at work is often part of the treatment package. Depression similarly may be more significant in the workforce, high stress over a long time (for example a pandemic) can produce depressive symptoms. It will present as absence often and in the similar pattern of a day here a day there. It may also present as alcohol abuse as this is often how people try to manage this. Alcohol abuse can often be spotted in the persistent Monday off pattern of absence. Again, it’s important to have an interview about the problem as soon as it’s spotted and to put a treatment plan in place. As with anxiety, there shouldn’t need to be any prolonged absence for treatment, which will be CBT and medication often, in fact being at work helps to reduce depression. 

Personality change symptoms

Other ways depression may present is in anger. Ten percent of those with depression are comorbid with dysregulation issues. Recent research indicates this may be truer in men than women, often women may self-harm rather than become angry and aggressive.  Any sudden and or extreme shift in personality in a staff member should be investigated straight away, often this is the first indication of psychological distress. 

COVID-19 will affect only a tiny minority of the population, certainly in its more severe form, but it’s really important to look out for signs this may be present in your staff. Long Covid is likely only to affect those that were symptomatic and had quite serious COVID symptoms, although it can affect those that were asymptomatic, in those cases, it’s likely to be much less severe and shorter-lived. The sooner treatment is offered the sooner the member of staff gets better. Now is the time for businesses to fully support their staff’s mental health, a prompt call to action will help many employees make a full and speedy recovery from psychological distress.

More on HR/Staff management and supporting employee mental health.

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