, How Long Covid Will Help Define The Future Of Work, The Nzuchi News Forbes

How Long Covid Will Help Define The Future Of Work

“Working Less is a Matter of Life and Death” blared the headline of the New York Times lead editorial on May 29. And a report in the May 10 Journal of the American Medical Association reported that mortality among working age adults in the U.S. is “high and rising.”

The complex and sometimes bitter relationship between overwork and health comes as no surprise to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of working age adults suffering from Long Covid, the unexpected, unwelcome and still little understood syndrome that afflicts 10-30% of those who were infected with Covid-19 with a baffling array of disabling symptoms for months after the initial infection. Two of the most prominent symptoms of Long Covid include overwhelming fatigue (not sleepiness, not tiredness, but a crashing kind of drop-off like, “If I don’t lie down right this second, I can’t go on” feeling) and mild cognitive dysfunction, often called “brain fog,” making it difficult to multitask, hitch motivation to action and concentrate.

The public health implications of Long Covid are so vast that the NIH has committed $1B to researching the syndrome.

Energy, time and cognitive focus are limited commodities for everyone, not just people with Long Covid. If businesses can learn to respect those limitations, they will retain Long Covid sufferers (who are often called Covid Long-Haulers,) and their employees who simply don’t want to die from overwork.

Full disclosure, I have Long Covid. I had a very mild case of Covid-19 in early June of 2020 and recovered. But a distressing and debilitating host of Long Covid symptoms arrived two months later and have persisted. I’ve lost most of my sense of smell; I don’t mind that. And I can tell I am recovering. But the exhaustion and brain fog, intermittent dizziness, and difficulty getting myself in gear persist, to varying degrees, most days. I find I can work productively about four to six hours a day—on a good day—instead of the eight to twelve I was used to. Fortunately for me, I am semi-retired, so I can do my work when I am able and rest when I need to. I wonder what I would do if I were still working full time.

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As of yet, there is no cure for Long Covid, nor is there any definitive treatment for the syndrome, though various remedies such as the stimulant modafinil and breathwork training can help some people.

Scientific understanding of the cause of Long Covid is still tentative. It might be caused by damage to the central nervous system during the initial infection, an over-active immune response, a persistent viral load or some combination of the three. There are analogous conditions, none of them are easily treated.

So, Long Covid is something that its unfortunate sufferers must live with, and so must their employers.

The numbers are worth taking seriously. A conservative estimate of the percentage of Americans who were infected with Covid-19 is 15%. A recent report put the rate of infection as high as 21%. Estimates of the frequency of Long Covid consistently range from 10 to 30% of those who were infected with Covid-19. This translates into an incidence of Long Covid in the workforce ranging between 1.5 to 4.5% of all employees. The fatigue and limited energy of these employees may not remit for many months, if ever. Can businesses afford to lose one to four out of every 100 employees? And what if that one employee is in the C-suite, or a partner in a law firm, or a surgeon, or has specialized skills and knowledge, or is otherwise critical to the ongoing functioning of the organization?

Since Long Covid affects the productivity of an enormous segment of the workforce, and many long-haulers are in their prime working years, business leaders need to be educated about Long Covid and strategize how to deal with it in their organizations. They will need to make significant adaptations in their way of doing business and their expectations of employees if they want to avoid losing precious talent.

How can your organization adapt to meeting the needs of employees—including leaders—who were highly productive and healthy people but are now easily exhausted, needing frequent breaks and rests and only able to produce at a fraction of the pace they used to be able to work?  

It’s still early, but signs suggest that long-haulers will recover, though very slowly. And whether they ever get back to their previous level of functioning is still unclear. But in the meantime, while highly productive and valued employees are unable to marshal the energy to perform at their previous pitch, the vast majority of long-haulers are not fully disabled and do not want to be cornered into ceasing to work altogether by inflexible disability and leave policies.

The phenomenon of post-viral malaise and debility is not new. There are reports of post-infectious syndromes from the 1918 flu, SARS, Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome, now thought to be triggered by an Epstein Barr infection. What is new, however, are the sheer numbers of people that have been affected. That’s the obvious impact of a pandemic. The numbers of infected people are so vast that if things can go wrong, it affects a huge number of people.

, How Long Covid Will Help Define The Future Of Work, The Nzuchi News Forbes

The pandemic and its accompanying challenges have spotlighted many problems of work life that were lurking but being quietly managed on an individual basis. Childcare options. Working while parenting school-age children. Health inequities. The fragility of small businesses. 

Long Covid, with its (hopefully) temporary but significant diminution of energy and productivity, highlights the problem so many have been living with–their attention and energy bank account is severely depleted.

Actions Leaders Should Take to Retain Long-Haulers and Keep All Employees Healthy

Leaders should consider the following actions to accommodate the needs of their workers with Long Covid. It may well be that these changes will benefit all employees (and leaders themselves!) in these stressed and fraught times.

1.   Rethink disability policies. Currently, employees who are too sick to work can take sick leave and then apply for short-term disability if their illness persists. If that goes on too long, they can seek long-term disability. But that narrow set of options is not good for employees, businesses or society. The insurance costs are high, and the psychological fallout from disability can be catastrophic. Employees with Long Covid should not be forced into a situation where their only option is to go on disability. Instead, find ways to accommodate their reduced capacity for productivity and let them keep working. Simply put, as hard as it is sometimes to get onto disability, it’s a lot harder to re-enter the workforce. Disability policies, as commonly formulated, are regressive. They provide few opportunities for creative experimentation.

2.   Rethink sick leave and personal leave policies. An employee with Long Covid may be able to work, for example, five hours a day, four days a week. Can you construct flexible and fair policies that accommodate that?  

3.   Get rid of routine, unnecessary and poorly structured meetings. Every hour a person with Long Covid must concentrate uses up their limited amount of energy. If they are required to attend team meetings that are just routine, or pro forma committee meetings, they are wasting what to them (and actually to everyone) is a precious and limited resource—energy and concentration. Rethink and tighten up all the regular meetings on the schedule. Are they really necessary? Could they be less frequent? Whose attendance is crucial? Is there always a meaningful and crisp agenda that is followed? What reports are not essential? It is part of human nature to keep doing things the way we’ve always been doing them. This is a good time to call that into question and “declutter” required but unnecessary meetings, reports and other routine activities.

4.   Aim for flexibility and adaptability regarding work from home, hybrid work, schedules, etc. Your Long Covid employee might be most productive in the early evening and unable to function before 10 AM. Talk to them about their energy pattern and see if it can be accommodated.

5.   Managers should check in with their reports with Long Covid employees at least monthly. See how the company can make it possible for them to work. Listen for translatable lessons about work life that would benefit the entire workforce.

6.   Create rest and recharge areas. Long-haulers need to take breaks and rest. Many can go back to work after a half-hour rest. And they need to take care of personal needs with a minimum of energy expenditure. If you have the space, set aside a room for quiet recharging. All you need are a few sofas. Allow anyone to use the room but ban phones, music, conversations, eating and work. WeWork offices often contained these spaces even before the pandemic. If possible, bring food into the office via a modest caterer or a vendor like Chicago’s Farmer’s Fridge. Employees won’t mind paying for their food, and even those without Long Covid will appreciate the convenience.

7.   Employee support group. Use company channels to publicize and organize a Long Covid employee group. These groups can serve two purposes. First, they provide long-haulers with some peer support and encouragement. Second, the group can operate as an idea generating lab that can help the company improve its policies, retain Long Covid employees and improve work life for everyone.

8.   Cultural change. Many professions and businesses have created a culture that supports a myth of invincibility. You’re young and hungry and want to prove yourself? Why not put in 16 hours a day at the law firm. You’re expected to. Or 24-hour shifts every three or four days as a physician. Or innumerable hours as an investment banker. But what if you’re young, ambitious and driven, but you have Long Covid, and you just cannot do it? Do employers want to lose those bright and committed workers? They will if there are not major accommodations and creative adaptations put in place, as well as a culture change that doesn’t equate superhuman work hours with value. This is a tricky thing, as it’s important that the work burden not fall upon the long-hauler’s peers. Each firm or company will have to find its own solution here, but it’s long past time that the capacity to work a 16-hour day be seen as central to succeeding.

9.   Proactive Risk Management. Companies that don’t find ways to accommodate the needs of long-haulers should get ready for lawsuits. At least one case has already been filed alleging that an employer’s failure to provide accommodations to an employee with Long Covid was discriminatory under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. The employee, an attorney, also plans to seek damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If employers can see adapting to the needs of Long Covid employees as an opportunity to rethink their approach to the universally limited human resources of mental energy, concentration and creativity, they will not only be able to retain this cadre of workers but perhaps save some lives in the entire workforce. To quote the NY Times editorial board, “Putting limits on work isn’t just a perk. It’s a matter of life and death.”

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