COVID-19 rehabilitation – top tips for employers
We all know that COVID-19 has changed our world. It may not have changed the world or work beyond recognition for all of us (unless you’ve lost a loved one because of it), but it’s clear that it’s here, it’s not going away and it’s going to cause problems for employers for a long time to come.
Rehabilitation following ill health can be one of the biggest problems for HR professionals to manage. It comes with employment risks, insurance risks, plus lots of ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ costs (like paying for temporary cover, re-allocating work across a team, or reduced performance levels).
Predicting the future
It causes lots of problems for occupational health specialists too, because although most are excellent clinicians and care deeply about their clients’, as well as the employee they’re supporting at the time. Sadly, when occupational health specialists qualify, they don’t head out into the world of healthy working with a crystal ball.
It’s sometimes just really, really difficult to predict how a condition or a recovery may develop, which means the majority of rehabilitation plans are usually built on a ‘step by step’ foundation.
Recovery from COVID-19
COVID-19 is pushing the boundaries of this problem even further, because as a new illness, there is so much that still isn’t known about how people recover.
What is clear, however, is that COVID-19 is far from just a respiratory virus – it’s a micro-vascular condition – which can affect any organ in the body. It’s presenting amongst primary care and hospital teams with symptoms ranging from rashes to ‘COVID toes’, to chronic fatigue, as well as fever, cough and changes to taste or smell.
Because not everyone was being tested in the early phase of the pandemic, it’s also sometimes difficult to prove that non-specific symptoms, like fatigue, have been caused by infection with COVID-19.
Although an antibody test should show if someone has been infected with COVID-19, they can become less accurate as the time between infection and testing increases. The accuracy of the ‘Abbott test’ drops to about 87% if the employee was infected more than 40 days before being tested. That means it may not be easily possible to prove if an employee has, or hasn’t had, COVID-19.
The severity of symptoms
It’s also becoming apparent that the severity of symptoms in the early stage of infection does not always correlate with the recovery period. Lots of patients who have not been admitted to hospital report experiencing prolonged recoveries.
It is possible that the virus may persist as a latent infection, like chickenpox, lying dormant in the body, re-emerging periodically as shingles. It may become a chronic infection, like hepatitis B, living within the body for a sustained period of time and causing long-term damage. All these unknown factors have to be taken into account by an occupational health clinician whilst advising a client.
Because it’s so difficult to predict how individuals may respond to a COVID-19 rehabilitation plan at the moment, there are currently no set guides for employers on what to do, when. However, we have pulled together these top tips for employers, to help support COVID-19 rehabilitation at work:
- A gradual approach is needed – there is no proven ‘expected recovery pattern’ at the moment
- Identifying ‘baseline’ activity levels is crucial – understanding what can be done for 5 to 7 days without any relapse is the first step
- Employees are likely to need shorter activities and longer rest periods – the aim is to invert the two over time
- Avoiding ‘boom to bust’ is essential – a good day doesn’t mean an employee is over COVID-19 – stopping employees from overloading on work as they come back will help them more in the long-run
- Develop a routine – helping the employee to structure their work around an agreed routine will help both parties
- Encouraging employees to keep an activity diary will help you and your occupational health advisors understand what is and isn’t working – which will help to improve the long-term success of the plan
- COVID-19 is showing a relationship between biology, physiology, genetics and socio-economic factors – it’s showing us that we are all different – not all recovery paths will be the same either
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