Skip to content

Long COVID in the Workplace - What the Latest Research Tells Us

For most people COVID has been a mild illness. They have had to take time off work and miss out on social activities for a week or two before making a full recovery. But, that’s not everyone’s experience with COVID. Some have suffered severe illness or the recovery has been weeks or months long. Long COVID is expected to take a heavy toll on the Australian healthcare system, workplaces and society for years.  

What is Long COVID?

Long COVID is when the symptoms persist past the initial infection. Around 200 symptoms have been identified as COVID-related, meaning sufferers can experience the virus in multiple ways. The World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of long COVID differs from that of the Australian Department of Health. In Australia, a person is experiencing long COVID if their symptoms persist for more than four weeks after the infection. The WHO considers a person to have long COVID if symptoms remain for after three months from infection and continue for at least two months.  

Some researchers and disability advocates around the world are referring to long COVID as a ’mass disabling event’. This is because it has the potential for hundreds of thousands of Australians to need medical support and be unable to work causing workforce disruptions.

It is estimated that around 5% of people infected with COVID-19 will develop long COVID in Australia.

Symptoms of Long Covid

The list of symptoms of long Covid is around 200 items long. The list includes a wide range of cognitive and physical symptoms, but the main reported symptoms for ‘long haulers’ include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Loss of smell
  • Brain fog
  • Amnesia
  • Inability to perform usual functions

Research has identified those who are more at risk of suffering long Covid:

  • Young people
  • Ethnic minority groups
  • Poor socioeconomic background
  • Smokers
  • Females
  • Obese
  • Suffering from comorbidities

The research noted that females are more likely to suffer from an autoimmune disease than males and therefore are at greater risk of developing long Covid.

COVID Impacts Everyone Differently

Some people may have had a fairly mild case of COVID but months later may find themselves not fully recovered. A person is considered to be suffering from long COVID or post COVID-19 condition if their symptoms have continued for more than 12 weeks after the initial infection. Long Covid is having a devastating impact on people’s lives and will cost the country billions in lost productivity and medical expenses.

Research into Long COVID

Long COVID is a relatively new condition. It has been around in other countries for the past three years but Australia has only started to see large numbers of sufferers in 2022 due to previously low COVID infection rates. Medical research takes time but research into long COVID is becoming more available as doctors learn more about the condition.

Vaccination Difference

A UK study has revealed that 5.3% of triple vaccinated people infected with Omicron variant suffered from long COVID symptoms that limited their activity. Moreover, of those who were double vaccinated, the rate increased to 6.2% suffering from long COVID.

For Delta infections, 4.4% of triple vaccinated people complained of long COVID compared to 9.5% who were double vaccinated.

Recovery Isn’t Linear

A joint New Zealand and Australian study into brain-centred symptoms found that chronic neuroinflammation leads to sustained illness with chronic relapse recovery cycles. So a sufferer may think they’re recovering, only to find they experience a prompt set-back.  

Impact of Long Covid on Workplaces

Workplaces are handling COVID differently. Some are still encouraging staff to work from home when the next wave of infections occur while other workplaces have no restrictions or precautions in place. Safe Work Australia has highlighted that employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment for staff and visitors which includes taking reasonable steps to keep people safe from COVID. Some organisations are encouraging staff to get their third vaccination dose with research showing they’re less likely to suffer from severe illness or long COVID.  

Some workplaces are struggling to cope with staff on sick leave due to long COVID. It’s difficult to plan when the organisation doesn’t know when a long Covid sufferer will be well enough to return to full duties. Some sufferers return to work thinking they have fully recovered but then experience a relapse and can’t work for another period.  

COVID has been divisive and the workplace is no exception. Not all workers are sympathetic to colleagues who haven't returned to full work duties after their COVID infection. When some staff members were able to be back to work full time within one week, they may expect everyone else to be the same.  

When one is well enough to return to work, long COVID sufferers may have medical appointments to attend during work time. Long COVID clinics within major hospitals have been set up in most states and territories in Australia. The clinics’ services include physiotherapy, rehabilitation and psychological support.

Some Australian long COVID sufferers have reported being too unwell to work and having to quit their jobs. They are unable to work but this invisible disability doesn't fit the criteria to access support via the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), leaving the patient in a complicated situation.  

Many organisations around Australia are working to support employees that are managing long COVID symptoms, so it's important to understand the symptoms, be mindful that everyone has a different experience with the virus, and be transparent and flexible in offering arrangements that work for all parties.

Contact us online or call 1800 258 487 for more information or advice.

Let's overcome your health challenges