Home >Industry >Human Resource >The challenges of getting long-covid patients back to work

When Deborah Shaffer tried to return to work two weeks after her Covid-19 infection, she forgot which floor of the veteran’s hospital she worked on. It was one of the many strange expressions of the brain fog that has plagued the social worker in Wichita, Kan., ever since she contracted the virus last November.

Ms. Shaffer is a Covid long-hauler, someone who suffers from chronic symptoms for weeks or months after their initial infection. After her failed early attempts to return to the hospital, she hasn’t worked a full day since she got sick, and has no idea if or when she will go back in person.

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“I’m a trained therapist and clinical social worker, but cannot complete even the most basic tasks before me," says Ms. Shaffer, 52. She recently started working from home, though she hasn’t yet clocked an eight-hour day.

It isn’t easy for Covid long-haulers to return to work. Scientists are just beginning to understand the mysteries of chronic Covid, also called long Covid or post-acute Covid. It can lead to various symptoms after initial infection, including severe fatigue, cognitive issues, digestive problems, erratic heart rates, headaches, dizziness, and fluctuating blood pressure.

It’s unclear exactly how many people suffer long-lasting symptoms. But studies suggest it’s a significant portion of the more than 107 million people with confirmed cases around the world. Some 26% of 1,733 Chinese Covid patients discharged from a Wuhan hospital between January and May 2020 still experienced fatigue six months after acute infection, according to a study published in January in the Lancet.

Many long-haulers are now requesting accommodations for their physical and cognitive symptoms through shortened schedules, fewer meetings and adjusted expectations for constant digital communication. But not all workplaces can adapt. Smaller or more traditional firms tied to the 40-hour-workweek may find it harder to do so. And some workers may simply be too ill to go back.

One way to make work easier on Covid long-haulers is already widespread: eliminating commutes.

“The ability to telework has been huge," says Lisa McCorkell, a 28-year-old policy analyst at the California Department of Social Services and long Covid patient since last March. She hopes the remote-work paradigm that swept the world in 2020 remains in place.

Her workday also incorporates regular 30-minute breaks, so it lasts from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. She says it’s a preventive measure against the “crash" that often tails long-haulers after a period of physical or mental exertion.

Part-time arrangements are another way to help some long-haulers ease back to work.

Rachel Robles, a 27-year-old senior strategist at the employment website in New York, contracted Covid-19 last March and experienced months of nausea, headache, fatigue, low-grade fever and brain fog. In late summer, she negotiated with her manager to work 20% fewer hours for 20% less pay in the last quarter of the year.

She says three months of a lighter workload and four-day workweeks left more time for medical appointments and greatly helped her recovery, while allowing her to retain the health insurance that’s crucial to managing the costs of her illness. This year, Ms. Robles returned to full-time work.

To get these and other concessions, long-haulers say they have to be their own best advocate.

“I’m not shy about it," says Nada Dorman, assistant director of communications at the University of Texas at Austin’s design school. She has had Covid symptoms for over a month, and says focusing on emails and video calls remains difficult. She says her team has been “very supportive" and lets her dial in on her phone to Zoom meetings instead of turning on video, which can be a strain.

Long-haulers can sometimes face skepticism or insensitivity while convincing their colleagues and employers that they have a diminished capacity to work.

“I’ve gotten some snarky emails since I got back to work being like, I emailed you a month ago," Ms. Dorman says. “I have to explain to them that emailing is still not easy for me, so please be respectful."

Freelancers with long Covid may have less luck devising work arrangements than full-time employees. Ghenya Grondin, a 42-year-old in Waltham, Mass., was a postpartum doula, supporting mothers after childbirth, before contracting Covid last March. She has experienced chronic symptoms since then, and stopped looking for work last June.

“It’s a high-energy undertaking to find clients," she says. “It’s not something you can do quietly from bed. You have to be out in the streets, meeting pregnant moms at coffee shops."

Larger organizations and those that employ more white-collar workers generally have more leverage to make accommodations for their workers, says Alyssa McGonagle, an associate professor of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “It’s a major struggle for smaller companies," she says.

Old-school companies can also be more resistant to scheduling innovations than startups or companies fewer than 10 years old, says Gregg Taylor, who runs a human-resources and benefits firm called FullHR in Charlotte. “Traditional companies often have this expectation of training an employee and holding on to them for years, and that goes hand-in-hand with a 40-hour workweek," he says.

Today, the fight to designate long Covid as an official disability is happening through court cases nationwide, says Cassie Ayeni, an attorney in Oakland, Calif., who represents many clients with chronic illness. She says that, based on court decisions in the coming years, long-haulers could potentially be covered by various federal disability laws.

Despite the best efforts of workers and employers, there’s always the possibility that some long-haulers will simply remain too sick to make it back.

Jon Souza, the president of a marketing company called Lienau who lives in Troutdale, Ore., was devastated when one of his account managers, and friend of 20 years, became a Covid long-hauler. His attempts to return to work were not smooth.

“He had times at his desk at work where he would literally just fall asleep," Mr. Souza recalls. He ordered the employee a special chair and allowed him to take breaks throughout the day. But by the end of the year, the account manager realized he couldn’t keep it up, and took an early retirement.

He holds out hope that his friend will eventually recover and come out of retirement to work with him again, as a consultant.

Five Tips for Returning to the Workplace With Long Covid

Take breaks throughout the day. Naps and breaks from work help long-haulers avoid the “crash" that often accompanies overexertion, says Ms. McCorkell, a Covid long-hauler.

Communicate difficulties with certain tasks. Reading and writing emails and processing long meetings remain difficult for many long-haulers. Make sure you explain that to your team when returning to work after an illness.

Look into part-time arrangements. If your employer allows it, working fewer hours or days a week as you recover can leave more time to focus on your health without leaving the workforce entirely.

Take the maximum possible disability benefit. “I suggest workers be very proactive about benefits," says Ms. Ayeni, the disability lawyer. “Long Covid has shown us that disability is way more common than one might think. If your employer has the option for higher benefit, always take that. If you can take 70% of your income versus 60%, that may be the difference between selling your house or not."

Consider vocational rehab: State-run vocational rehabilitation is a great resource, and is free in most big cities for people with disabilities and chronic illness, says Julie Hill, an assistant professor at Auburn University and a certified rehabilitation counselor. These programs can offer everything from interview counseling to training for new jobs. You need documentation from a doctor of your “functional limitations," she says, but it’s more straightforward, and easier to qualify for, than Social Security.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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