Long Covid: a particularly bad headache for retail?

Suzanne Marshall, clinical governance officer, GoodShape on how the problems caused by long-covid could affect retailers

Cooped up indoors, face to face with a steady stream of strangers. No working from home.

When it comes to Covid-related absence, it’s no surprise retail is the UK’s hardest-hit industry. Our data shows that over 222,000 retail employees missed work due to a positive test between January and mid-July. That’s almost a quarter of all Covid cases in the UK workforce. Throw in the so-called ‘pingdemic’ and the picture gets worse: we estimate just under half a million people in consumer and retail took time off to isolate between the start of the year and mid-July.

Things have improved since January’s peak – but with 19,000 people testing positive and 75,000 isolating in July alone, if you’re managing a retail business you still have plenty of challenges ahead.

Perhaps the hardest to plan for is the impact of Long Covid. Anywhere between one in four and one in twenty people with Covid will go on to develop long-lasting symptoms – whether or not they even realised they had it in the first place. With case numbers still high among retail workers, are you facing a Long Covid crisis this autumn? And if so, what can you do to protect your people and your organisation?

A long time for diagnosis

Despite the NHS opening 81 Long Covid assessment clinics and spending over £50 million on research into the condition, it’s still tricky to diagnose – a loose collection of symptoms with no clear-cut, tell-tale signs. Officially, the term ‘Long Covid’ describes symptoms that persist for more than four weeks after contracting Covid-19, split into two stages:

  • Ongoing symptomatic Covid-19 – symptoms that last 4-12 weeks
  • Post-Covid-19 syndrome – symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks and can’t be explained by another diagnosis

The timescales involved here only add to your challenge. When a diagnosis of Long Covid could take three months or more, how do you support employees suffering with lingering symptoms?

Long Covid symptoms

As if that wasn’t enough, Long Covid can present in any number of different ways depending on the person. It can impact cognitive, physical, and emotional wellbeing, and even after a diagnosis, there’s currently little that can be done to cure it.

Physical symptoms include extreme fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath and dizziness. Long Covid is also being shown to impact mental health, including emotional responses such as shock and fear, brain fog, anxiety, and memory problems.

That link is particularly concerning: our data from the last 18 months shows that one in seven employees who take time off with Covid will experience subsequent mental health troubles. With the high number of positive Covid cases in retail this year, that means over 33,000 retail workers could be set to suffer poor mental health in the coming months.

What can you do to help?

Despite the many challenges of Long Covid, we firmly believe employers have a key role to play in supporting those who are suffering with it.

You can lay the groundwork by making sure your HR teams and line managers understand the symptoms and know what to look out for. It’s a good idea to incorporate Long Covid into your absence policy to make sure affected employees are treated fairly – for example, it might help to offer a phased return to work or a period of flexible hours. Above all, develop a culture of talking with employees if Long Covid is a concern – early intervention can help prevent more serious problems getting a foothold.

You could also partner with a private nurse-led service to give your staff access to round-the-clock advice for physical and mental wellbeing. This can help you accurately triage for Long Covid (or anything else) and connect those that need it with the appropriate services for speedy diagnosis and treatment. And if you identify case clusters, you could consider investing in private medical services to support your affected workers in-house.

To know is to care

One thing the pandemic has taught us is to expect the unexpected. With Covid far from gone, it’s essential that you have the right tools to monitor, pre-empt, and react to the evolving impact of infections and self-isolation. Other sectors are seeing a cascade effect – the NHS, for example, has seen a 37% rise in absence related to poor mental health between February and June 2021.

You can’t be expected to single-handedly carry the burden of emerging physical and mental health conditions like Long Covid – but you do have a responsibility to look after your staff. Accurate, real-time data on employee wellbeing, sickness, and absence can help you take a proactive approach, intervening early and offsetting the longer-term impact on individual people and the organisation as a whole.

With the right tools and policies in place, you can give employees the best possible support – and help your organisation weather the storm of Covid-19.

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