Since falling ill with Covid-19 in March 2020, Sara Hawthorn, 38, has been experiencing extreme fatigue and other problems, such as trouble concentrating and brain fog.
“I can’t work or focus,” says Hawthorn, who lives in Leeds and runs her own PR agency. “I’m constantly forgetting. I can’t trust my brain.”
Hawthorn at first tried to conserve her energy by reducing her working hours, then in August this year she closed her business. “I didn’t trust myself to do the best work that I could. My occupational therapist said: ‘We always tell people to stop everything but you have not literally stopped; you have worked throughout the pandemic.’ There’s been no recuperation time. I need to listen my body.”
Hawthorn, who was referred to a long Covid clinic in August after nine months on the waiting list, adds: “I was active, ran a business, danced a lot, walked, baked; all that is gone. Life is dull, small and boring. It’s hard to compare yourself with who you were before. The work guilt was horrific but continuing was at the cost of my health.”
In May the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1 million people in the UK were experiencing self-reported long Covid – a term used to describe symptoms that persist four weeks after having the virus. The NHS recognises symptoms as including extreme tiredness, problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”), difficulty sleeping and shortness of breath.
Experiencing fatigue after contracting Covid-19 in December 2020, David Reynolds*, 33, could only work 50% of the time when he returned the following month. Reynolds, the head of resource recovery at a product design company, worked several hours a day over five days but he struggled. “It exhausted me,” he says. “And I didn’t recover. Work were really sympathetic and accommodating and said the ball was in my court. I kept going as we were busy but I kept experiencing cycles of feeling wiped out.”
He continued for five months until he told his employer that he was finding it difficult to recover. In May he volunteered to reduce his hours to three days a week, resulting in the loss of two-fifths of his pay. He says he has been able to cope because of the savings he had amassed during the pandemic. “I managed to save up quite a bit of money during lockdown, which I would never usually be able to do. But now I’m eating into them. Thankfully, I’m on a reasonable salary, so I can get by without changing my lifestyle, but it’s not sustainable long term. I plan to go back to four days as soon as I can.”
If a GP suggests workplace adjustments within a fit note an employer is obliged to consider to implement them
Charlotte Geesin of Howarths
His company arranged an occupational health assessment, where it was agreed that reducing his hours by a specific time and taking rest periods would hopefully aid his recovery. When he told his employer that he was finding it difficult to live on three days’ salary, it offered to pay statutory sick pay pro rata, which he says comes to about £40-£50 a week.
If an employee needs to reduce hours or workload, sometimes adjustments will be suggested by a GP when they issue a statement of fitness for work – a note needed if you are off work for more than seven days.
“If a GP suggests certain workplace adjustments within a fit note then an employer is obliged to consider whether it is possible and reasonable to implement them,” says Charlotte Geesin, the head of employment law at Howarths. “While an employer is obliged to consider any suggested adjustments, they are not obliged to implement them if they cannot reasonably be accommodated, for example, on the basis of cost.”
If an employer is unable to accommodate the suggested adjustments then the employee is entitled to remain off sick from work until they feel well enough to go back, she says.
An employee who is absent under a fit note and who meets the eligibility criteria will be entitled to statutory sick pay, which is £96.35 a week, for up to 28 weeks. “When SSP ends or, if an employee is not able to obtain a fit note to validate the absence, then any unpaid absence would be something that the employee would have to discuss with their employer,” Geesin says.
She adds that if an employer has a company sick pay scheme in place, an employee might also be entitled to additional pay during any absence. “If an employee does not have a contractual right to company sick pay or if the entitlement to extra company pay is described as discretionary, then the employee would have no automatic right to pay. Any payment would need to be agreed between an employer and an employee.”
Geesin says that it is possible for a person with long Covid to be classed as disabled and to qualify for any workplace help related to that. It is worth checking the conciliation service Acas’s website for guidance on the growing impact of long Covid in the workplace.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson says: “For anyone with a disability or long-term health condition, including long Covid, there is a strong financial safety net, including statutory sick pay and universal credit. Personal independence payment (Pip) is also available for those who have a daily living and/or mobility needs for three months, and are expected to have these for at least another nine months.”
Wendy Alcock, the communications manager at Entitledto, an online benefit calculator, says that those over pension age might be allowed to claim pension credit, while all age groups and work types may be eligible for help in paying council tax.
“Contributory benefits (new style employment and support allowance and new style jobseeker’s allowance) are available to help people who have paid enough national insurance contributions over a certain period of time,” she says.
They are not means-tested so there are no income and savings rules that need to be met.
“Some of these benefits, including universal credit, require you to agree to a claimant commitment to continue to receive your payments,” she says. “If you don’t meet the rules you will be sanctioned and your payment will stop. Your work coach should take into consideration your long Covid when agreeing your commitments and they have the discretion to change things, so ask if you’re struggling to meet them.” The benefits calculator at entitledto.co.uk will help you work out what you may be able to claim based on your own circumstances.
Those with long-term health conditions as a result of long Covid can also apply for Pip if they have had daily living or mobility needs for three months and are expected to have needs for at least a further nine months.
Another option could be claiming on your insurance if you have it. “If you can’t work you can claim through your income protection cover,” says Kevin Carr, an insurance consultant. “Insurers will want evidence and will write to your GP. With hundreds of thousands of people having long Covid, the industry is bracing itself for a large number of claims.”
Hawthorn has not looked into whether she could claim benefits, but she fears for the future financially says she is likely to struggle. “I haven’t been able to plan for this,” she says.
“It’s been blow after blow … I had reserves in the bank but I had to use them because of the economic situation.”
* Name has been changed