aOne of our University and College Union (UCU) members, John*, used to enjoy Ironman competitions, but now walking into his own bathroom is an feat of will. His resting heart rate was 40 beats per minute (bpm), but now sitting he sees it’s up to 220 beats per minute. He is suffering from a long Covid illness and his life has changed immeasurably. His partner is now his caretaker. He can no longer work.
John is disabled. But the employer and the pension system do not know how to deal with it. He was too sick to work, yet he was denied the ability to get his pension early – something that is given to many illnesses and other health conditions.
When Covid emerged, I spent my time helping our members and employers to continue working as safely as possible. Now, Long Covid is the front lines of a new battle with non-creative employers, risk-averse pension systems, and “people” departments. It is clear that those with prolonged Covid-19 are suffering from a serious and unpredictable illness that prevents them from working as they used to. But they are often denied exceptions and the ability to negotiate new terms that would allow them to continue working.
The problem is manifested in one sentence on the NHS website that reads: “Long Covid is a new case still being studied”. Long Covid didn’t exist until early 2020. Doctors simply don’t know how long this will last – there are no long-term studies because it hasn’t been around long enough. In John’s case, as with many others, this is why the pension system refuses to allow his claim to retire due to ill health.
Most employers do not yet understand the impact of Long Covid. They expect employees to behave as they would with any other illness — get sick, get better, and go back to work. One might get a gradual return, but in almost all of my cases, employers count four weeks and set a date when they expect people to return to their normal working hours and patterns.
But for many workers, Covid has long delivered a fatal blow beyond the impact of the initial disease. Not all conditions are the same, but symptoms can range from occasional fatigue and brain fog to severe, debilitating heart palpitations and an inability to complete even the simplest of tasks without significant and limited effort. For many symptoms come and go, swing without rhyme or reason, and leave no ability to plan.
As the pandemic progressed and we realized it wasn’t going away, our attention at UCU turned to how our members and employers lived with it. Covid has changed the way many of us work, and we now understand that people can work at least as effectively in unconventional and flexible ways.
Working from home is possible. Eliminate the time, cost and stress associated with commuting, use technology effectively, and we can make the commute to the workplace purposeful. Work gets done, people spend more time with their families and their productivity increases. This is not true for all jobs and all people, but it is true for enough people that choice should be more important to how we work.
This approach can be adapted and extended to the long Covid as well. Most people want to work, especially those who have been forced out due to illness through no fault of their own. They do not want to be left behind because their employer was not sophisticated enough to embrace different ways of working for different health needs.
However, lifting Covid restrictions has resulted in many employers returning to existing monitoring and management, eliminating flexibility benefits for employees and the employer. This is a problem for the entire workforce, but for people who have been sick with Covid for a long time, it is devastating because the resilience imposed by the pandemic has been the lifeblood of the world of work.
Four weeks isn’t long enough and some people won’t be able to go back to their old ways of working. That doesn’t justify dumping them for scrap – they can still be valuable, knowledgable, and loyal employees, while working differently.
For many, a return to normal patterns may be possible if employers show greater care and flexibility, allowing people to slow down and rest or work from home with regular breaks. Let people experiment with working patterns and see what works, and understand that some weeks may be different than others.
The country and employers cannot afford to lose employees by being so strict in this matter. Management training needs to consider new ways of handling these situations. Employers need policies that deal with the protracted Covid and ensure that human resources departments are able to support managers in difficult return-to-work situations. Sickness policies need to provide greater support to people whose finances may prompt them to return early, exacerbating both the employer and employee situation.
And for seriously ill people like John, the only option is to retire from ill health and hope that someone, somewhere, will find a cure for a while. For those who will not be well enough to return to work, retirement systems need to understand that people do not have the luxury of waiting five or 10 years for a diagnosis to emerge. Long Covid caused John’s debilitating symptoms – and his doctor testified to that fact. However, there is no specific damage to the organs, and nothing allows the paramedic to promise the employer that the patient has exhausted his treatment and will not improve.
He has fallen into the gap where he is too sick to work but cannot have a healthy retirement, a decision we appeal to. If you meet John, you will know why we do not accept the answer, He and his partner have already lost a lot to this disease but there is a good chance he will refuse the pension system again. We will continue to fight for John, and we will continue to make the broader issue: As long as Covid is here to stay, employers and the pension systems need to get their act together.
* Names have changed