Supporting Employees with Long Term Conditions

Employers in the UK have the potential to play a pivotal role in helping to achieve a much wider and more sustainable integration of health and well-being, and disability inclusive practices at work to support their employees, who have long term health problems.

The health and wellbeing issues that have arisen during the last 10 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic of stress, anxiety and mental health and their impact on employees are now being talked about in HR circles. However, the emergence of what is being term Long Covid, is new and is only now, being identified as an illness which can affect people for the long term.

In the first months of COVID-19, it felt that for many people the illness was short, relatively mild and lasted less than a fortnight. Most of the focus and research was on the much smaller proportion of patients falling seriously or fatally ill. The news headlines were on mortality levels and the capacity in Intensive Care Units (ICU’s).

As time has marched on and we enter a second phase of the pandemic, Covid’s effect on recovering patients is only now coming to the fore.


So, what is Long Covid?

Patients with so-called Long Covid (symptoms lasting longer than three weeks), continue to experience excessive fatigue, breathlessness, headache, insomnia, muscle fatigue and pains, chest pains, persistent cough, intermittent fevers and brain fog (1). Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, warned in a recent report that long-haulers that could turn out to be a bigger public-health problem than excess deaths (2).


Wider acknowledgement of the effects long-term illnesses in the workplace is need

This means that employees who return to work after having had COVID-19 will need on-going support as the virus may have on-going impact. Other the other hand, while the virus’s effects are not yet fully appreciated and must not be underplayed, it is important to remember that enduring symptoms of ill-health are not exclusive to COVID-19.

Fatigue is a symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and multiple sclerosis; breathlessness is a common feature of asthma, bronchitis, and angina; and muscular pain is common in many musculoskeletal conditions, including arthritis and rheumatism. What the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, for us all, are the shared health vulnerabilities and the importance of employer support for employees with long term illnesses. Indeed, according to research by Group Risk Development trade body (GRiD), acute medical conditions like cancer only account for some one in five (19 per cent) of long-term employee absences among employers (3).


Supporting employees with long term ill-health

Employee wellbeing support should entail helping workers to self-manage ill-health symptoms and take preventative care to keep well, feel confident in their ability to work and be work engaged. Most long-term health problems are managed away from clinical care in people’s everyday lives for example, taking medication, seeking social support, and managing emotional consequences and this includes at work.

Support provided by employee assistance programmes, occupational health specialists, mental health, and through insurances such as cashplans, private medical insurance, group risk products can make a significant positive impact in supporting employees manage their health problems. This support in turn can lead to stronger productivity and performance in the workplace. Conversations about supporting workers with long-term health problems need to happen now, be joined up and be aimed at empowering people via working practices.

The challenge for the benefits industry is how to help employers support their people who have health conditions to stay, and thrive, in work. This is where a good benefits programme is key for employers, so that they can take positive action to support employees who are managing health conditions and to manage sickness absences more effectively. UK workplaces can play a vital role in improving people’s health and wellbeing.


Changing mindset

A recent Loughborough University study found work factors affected the behaviour of those with long-term health conditions (including mental health, musculoskeletal, neurological and respiratory), meaning some people did not manage their condition at work despite needing to (4). However, those workers who had manager support, including work flexibility, were more likely to manage their health. Workers experiencing difficulties in fitting managing their health around the job or anticipating stigma in the workplace, managed their condition less well. This can have a major impact on workplace productivity, quality, and customer experience.

The research found some workers felt clinical advice was not always needed to make workplace changes, but it suggested those employers who do not provide support do so because they are ill-informed about this. It raised the question of why supporting employees with better self-managing health at work support is not viewed as essential, particularly, because of the COVID-19 pandemic more workers could now be affected by long-term health problems.

The research made clear that employers and especially line managers have a critical role but need guidance. A psychosocial model of workplace self-management support for long-term health conditions is needed to help managers prompt conversations with workers about self-managing long-term health problems. Long-term ill-health can lead to people’s premature work exit and are often characterised by a person needing to self-manage them without colleague support.

The goal for all employers should be around the following steps:

  • supporting employees who have long term health problems
  • identify their health support needs
  • look at how a benefits programme can target the required workplace support
  • target KPIs too improve employees’ health and work outcomes.

The result will be gains in productivity, better staff engagement and higher moral.


Next steps

Employers in the UK have the potential to play a pivotal role in helping to achieve a much wider and more sustainable integration of health and well-being, and disability inclusive practices at work to support their employees, who have long term health problems.


Wojciech Dochan

Managing Director, Bravo Benefits

Provider of the SmartHive Platform

Smart Hive is an integrated, cost effective employee benefits platform that provides your employees with access to all their health and wellbeing benefits in one place. Talk to a member of our team today or book your very own demonstration.



  2.; Long covid: How to define it and how to manage it. BMJ2020;370doi: 07 September 2020) Cite this as:BMJ2020;370:m3489
  3. GRiD