The biggest health challenge that businesses will face is Long Covid.
Prof Renata Schoeman said while organisations have focused on primary prevention of Covid-19 infection – measures such as masks, sanitizing, physical distancing, and working from home, employers also need to turn their attention to employees returning to work after recovering from Covid-19.
BUSINESSES URGED TO SHIFT THEIR FOCUS
Schoeman said since the global spread of Covid-19 from early 2020, there is an emerging body of evidence from many countries on the growing number of people who experience prolonged symptoms beyond the initial, acute stage of the disease.
She said the likely long-term impact of Long Covid on productivity and employee retention would call on employers to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate employees on the long road to recovery.
Schoeman is head of the Health Care Leadership MBA programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB.
“Long Covid – with symptoms of brain fog, fatigue, and shortness of breath lasting for six months or more, is set to become the most significant health challenge facing business and the healthcare system beyond the immediate crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Schoeman said someone recovering from Long Covid struggles to find familiar words.
“Their memories and thinking are fuzzy, losing their train of thought mid-conversation, gasping for breath and battling constant, intense tiredness – for Covid-19 “long haulers” this is a reality for weeks, even months, after contracting and seemingly recovering from the disease.”
According to Schoeman, individual studies indicated that between 10% and 30% of patients who recover from acute Covid-19 become ’long haulers’, who still experiencing symptoms six months later.
“In one study, of 3 762 patients who had confirmed or suspected Covid-19, most of whom had symptoms lasting longer than 90 days, 45% needed a reduced work schedule compared to before they became ill and 22% were not working due to their health conditions.”
She furthermore said this illustrates the scale of the likely impact on employers, employees, and the healthcare system that will need to accommodate these patients.
UNDERSTANDING LONG COVID IS STILL EVOLVING
“Employers need to be reviewing their occupational health services, employee assistance and wellness programmes, policies on sick leave and reasonable accommodation, post-illness return-to-work plans, and ensure they are not discriminating on grounds of mental health or disability.”
She said understanding of Long Covid was still evolving and a timeline for when maximum improvement of the condition can be expected still remained to be determined.
“The implications are far-reaching, and the likes of healthcare funders and income-protection insurers need to be reviewing their policies and guidelines on treatment and disability. The medical profession and policy-makers need to arrive at objective diagnostic and assessment criteria, and guidelines for best practice in evidence-based treatment and management of Long Covid.”
Schoeman said developing objective criteria for a diagnosis of Long Covid is important since many of its key aspects such as brain fog and fatigue are largely “invisible”, and employers would need to guard against abuse of sick leave, flexible work arrangements and workplace accommodations.