COVID19: Post-virus conditions
18 February 2020
The COVID19 crisis has dominated the media headlines throughout the year, yet the death toll might have only been a part of the full medical story. The reality is that the health impacts of contracting and surviving the virus may well continue long after the virus has been sent packing.
Given that the virus was not formally identified until November last year, the long-term effects of the illness have yet to be fully studied. But already there are some genuinely worrying signs of lasting physical and mental damage that might become much more visible in the months and years ahead.
Broadly the effects appear to fall into one of two areas:
1) Lung damage & fatigue
The first area to consider is the lung damage to those that were placed on ventilators to combat the more severe cases of COVID19.
Experts believe that many in this grouping could be left with lung “scarring”, leading to a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis. The condition is irreversible, and symptoms can include severe shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue.
But post-COVID19 fatigue does not appear to be limited to those that have been hospitalised. Anecdotally I am aware of several individuals who survived the illness without seeking medical assistance, but who weeks or months later still feel very weak, and are often out of breath too. It is unclear how long this might persist for, and it’s possible that at least some might also face a lengthy lay-off from their daily work routines long after the worst of the crisis has passed.
2) Stress and mental ill-health
And then there are the – often less easy to identify – mental health conditions which might persist post-crisis too.
Most people will be aware of Post-traumatic stress disorder (known as PTSD) in relation to traumatic events, particularly those experienced by emergency workers and/or military personnel. Yet any situation or experience that an individual finds traumatic can potentially lead to this condition, and Doctors are already warning that those who have been hospitalised in COVID19 wards should be screened for signs of PTSD.
With more than 100,000 UK hospitalisations as a result of coronavirus so far, this would require a major program to be delivered, particularly as screening might have to take place more than once to be effective. The issue here is that PTSD often develops many months or even years after the traumatic event was first experienced, so a “one off” testing regime would likely miss at least some potential cases.
And then, of course, there are many others who may not have contracted the illness, but whose mental health has nevertheless been damaged by the months of lockdown, social isolation, or loss of a loved one. Such a condition could worsen over time if left undiagnosed and untreated.
All of which suggests that at least some employees could yet be facing lengthy periods of workplace absence, and possibly long after the pandemic has ceased to be a national issue. Of course, a long period of absence at any time is bad for both the employee and employer, so it follows that employers need to be aware of this risk, and aim to introduce measures to mitigate its impact where possible.
As I suggested in my post last week, part of the employer planning here should be around the effective promotion and use of all the health-related Employee Benefits on offer.
Group Income Protection
But today I would like to particularly champion the provision of Group Income Protection (GIP) policies as a useful tool in dealing with long ill-health absences.
GIP policies are designed to provide a replacement income if an employee is unable to work because of long-term illness or injury. It follows that these policies are really important and reassuring to workers at any time, and never more so than during a national health emergency.
It’s also worth pointing out that providing a Group Income Protection offering often enables the employer to look at alternative options to cover the absent employee’s workload with far fewer cost-concerns to consider.
Finally – and certainly not least – employers certainly shouldn't overlook the fact that many such policies now include free access to Early Intervention Services to help return the absent employee to the workplace just as quickly as any health concerns allow. Such services are staffed by medical professionals, occupational health experts, and vocational rehabilitation consultants too, and in practice such interventions often result in a faster return to work than would otherwise be achieved. This is clearly good news for employer and employee alike.
So if you already provide Group Income Protection to your workers, then I would urge you to maintain that cover during these really difficult and worrying times. And if you do not currently offer such a scheme, then it’s certainly worth looking at this option again in light of the recent pandemic experience.
For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options. For the latest details on COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision please visit Howden’s coronavirus hub.
Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.