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Return to work after long COVID - an evidence review

Posted by Ann Caluori | Fri, 17/12/2021 - 10:08


An evidence review, Return to work after long COVID: Evidence at 8th March 2021 , undertaken by an international group of experts states that return to work for an individual with long COVID often needs involvement of the recovering worker, employer, line manager, health professionals and (where available) occupational health professionals to facilitate appropriate return to work and support at work.


Professor David Fishwick, HSE’s Chief Medical Adviser said that: “Drawing together the evidence base is really important to define the best way forward for workers suffering from long COVID, to best help them feel better and return to work healthy.”


A return-to-work plan for individuals with long COVID could include: a phased return, flexible work, time off for rehabilitation and medical appointments, fatigue management strategies, adapting work tasks, etc. A SOM toolkit includes step-by-step advice on how to do this - available to download here.


“Long COVID patients experience persistent symptoms after the acute infection that prevent them from resuming their normal lives and work,” says Professor Lode Godderis who led the study, specialist in occupational medicine (KU Leuven) and Director of the Service for Prevention and Protection at Work (IDEWE). “It is important, in addition to searching for the causes, to help people to resume their daily activities and work. A multidisciplinary approach is therefore necessary including support in getting back to work, because we know that after three months of incapacity it becomes increasingly difficult to return to work.”


Some people recovering from COVID-19 still experience symptoms weeks or even months after their infection which can impact on their daily functioning, including their ability to work. Return to work is complex and will differ for each individual. SOM was pleased to see NHS England offer return to work support including occupational health in clinical pathways for long COVID clinics. SOM considers that occupational health professionals should play an active role in the return to work.


Working is generally good for health. Return to (adapted) work needs to be prepared and can be an effective part of the rehabilitation. Occupational health professionals, where available, should develop a close and trustful relationship with all stakeholders to initiate a return to work. The worker with long COVID should be allowed to be actively involved in (re)designing his/her work.

SOM understands that for most businesses, helping workers return safely and productively will be a challenge. Its advice is for businesses to plan for any return, and any plans should have the agreement of managers, human resource professionals, the workers themselves and the unions that represent them.


OD Consultant Lesley Macniven FCIPD, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and became an early campaigner for patient group Long Covid Support. As Chair of their multi-disciplinary Employment Group, who are balancing advocacy and their own, paced return to professional work, Lesley summarises what the group have learned in 2021: “Patient groups like ours have built up significant expertise on managing long COVID. It is evident one size can't fit all, and we must allow workers flexibility and support to listen effectively to their own bodies. Workers need to convalesce, then recuperate through a very gradual, phased return to work (over many months if absence has already been prolonged) to allow a sustainable return."


Download the full press release here.