A support group for sufferers of long Covid says its members include many who have dropped out of professional jobs and are struggling to get by on basic benefits © Victoria Jones/PA
A quarter of UK employers say long Covid is now one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence among their staff, according to research that suggests the debilitating condition could be exacerbating labour shortages that are plaguing many parts of the economy.
A survey of 804 organisations, representing more than 4.3mn employees, found that one in four put it among the top three reasons for long-term absence, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said on Tuesday, while half had staff who had suffered from long Covid in the past 12 months.
Meanwhile, a fifth of employers said they did not know whether any of their staff had experienced continuing symptoms from the virus, suggesting the problem was underestimated as a workplace issue.
Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, the professional body for human resources, said alarm bells would be “starting to ring” for employers who were already struggling to fill vacancies and risked a significant loss of talent if those affected were unable to stay in work.
The survey adds to growing evidence that long-term health issues are adding to existing strains on a depleted UK workforce. Official data show the number of people who are not working or looking for a job due to long-term ill health has increased by 230,000 from pre-pandemic levels.
It is not clear how many of this group are suffering from long Covid and how many are affected by mental ill health or other chronic conditions. But Office for National Statistics figures show that 1.3mn people were reporting persistent symptoms of Covid at the start of 2022, and that almost a quarter of a million of them said their ability to undertake day-to-day activities was “limited a lot”.
The condition — whose symptoms range from fatigue, brain fog and short-term memory loss to breathlessness and changes in heart rate or blood pressure — is more prevalent among health and care workers and teachers, who were exposed to the virus in its early stages when diagnosis and treatment was lacking.
Surveys conducted by the Patient Led Research Collaborative for Long Covid, a group of researchers affected by the condition, and by the Trades Union Congress suggested that at least a fifth of sufferers had not been able to return to work, with many of those who had returned still on reduced hours.
“This is a huge workforce challenge,” said Lesley Macniven, a former HR professional who chairs the employment working group of Long Covid Support, a campaign and support body whose Facebook page has more than 46,000 members affected by continuing symptoms.
She said the group’s membership included many people who had dropped out of professional jobs and were struggling to get by on basic benefits, because HR policies were often too prescriptive to support those who needed to return to work on a gradual basis and might suffer relapses.
Smaller employers did not always have occupational health provision even when they were sympathetic, she added, and although the NHS had developed policies to support the large numbers of staff affected since the start of the pandemic, practice varied from one NHS trust to another and according to the decisions of individual line managers.
The CIPD said its research underlined an “urgent need for significant and systemic change in the way that people with health conditions, including long Covid, are supported to stay in work”.