The long lasting physical and mental health effects of Covid-19

  • 08 Mar 2022

The pandemic may still be ongoing, but many small business owners are also having to contend with the longer-term consequences, including mental health concerns and the devastating impact of long Covid. Jo Faragher looks at what can be done.

In the weeks leading up to christmas, small businesses were experiencing a familiar sense of dread.

The discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was cause for concern, raising fears that lockdowns could return and put the brakes on economic recovery. But it was also a sharp reminder that many of the issues associated with the pandemic do not simply disappear, and thousands of small business owners are still dealing with physical and mental health issues as a direct result. 

 

In December 2021, the Office for National Statistics reported that one in 50 people were suffering from self-reported long Covid, meaning they were suffering with symptoms for more than four weeks after contracting the virus. The most common symptoms include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and problems with memory and concentration, but researchers have identified as many as 200 side effects. “Symptoms change over time, so you could experience fatigue one day but feel emotionally low another,” explains Christine Husbands, Managing Director of FSB Care. 

Long Covid is challenging because of its unpredictability. “If an employee is off with a broken leg, they can go to a fracture clinic and ‘fix’ the issue, but with something like long Covid the symptoms are so multifaceted that you can’t simply apply one solution for every person,” says Adrian Matthews, Employee Benefits Director at insurance company MetLife. 

FSB Care can assign a nurse to advise employees on specific symptoms, adds Ms Husbands, but the key is to be flexible. “Businesses should ask individuals what would best help them, as they know best, and the support might not be difficult to provide,” she says. “If someone feels tired in the morning they could start later, for example, or avoid having to commute.”

Usual rules apply 

If you’re a one-person (or even three or four-person) band, juggling your or your employees’ health while keeping the business ticking over can feel impossible. Employees who are absent from work due to a chronic condition such as long Covid should follow the usual absence reporting procedures and will be eligible for sick pay, explains Hannah Thomas, a solicitor at FSB Legal. 

“Depending on the severity of employees’ symptoms due to long Covid, employees may need to take time off work as long-term sick leave,” she adds. “Alternatively, employees who are well enough to return to work in some capacity, or experience fluctuations 
in their symptoms, may require temporary adjustments to their work role, working hours or place of work (such as incorporating periods of home working).” 

 

Managers should be mindful of how work tasks and patterns could mitigate (or worsen) symptoms, and exercise flexibility. “Under health and safety legislation employers should ensure so far as possible that the workplace or work role does not exacerbate any existing physical and/or mental symptoms,” Ms Thomas advises. If performance becomes an issue, any capability process should be conducted fairly, requesting a medical report if necessary. 

Mental burden 

The mental health impact of the pandemic has been and will continue to be devastating for some. Data from the ONS shows that rates of depression have doubled since the virus hit, and mixed messages about returning to offices or protection for those who cannot work from home have heightened anxiety.

“Lots of people are struggling with the impact of being asked to go back into the workplace,” says Ms Husbands. “They’re nervous about catching Covid-19 even if they’re double-jabbed or they’ve changed their lifestyle so feel less comfortable being around people.” 

Holly MacDougall-Corbin, disabled people’s employment champion for the Welsh Government and adviser to Business Wales, says that, for many, remote working can exacerbate this. “With many of us now sitting behind a screen, we’re slipping into a culture of isolation, working alone and not having that face-to-face time to voice appreciation for others,” she says. 

Small gestures such as using the ‘awards’ feature in Teams or sending an email can let employees know that they’re listened to and their work is appreciated. “It’s important that we replicate face-to-face gestures of encouragement online,” she says. And it’s not just employees who could be struggling; a study by FSB found two-fifths of Scottish members had concerns about their mental health in 2021.

Grace Gimson started wellbeing app Holly Health just before the pandemic hit, and found that, while it was a great time to build a business because her social life was off-limits, it took its toll on her mental health. “We now have five people and we try to use the app to remind us to do things outside of work, such as go for a walk, or to create morning and evening routines where we’re not on our phones,” she says.

“I think people generally have a higher sense of self-awareness in terms of how they’re feeling, whether they’re experiencing low-level anxiety or tiredness. The more individuals can learn about where their limits are, the more they can prevent themselves from going over the edge.” 

 

Easing the load

As a business owner, delegation can be a struggle, but physical or mental burnout can have long-term ill effects on the business. “If there are only two or three of you in the business, it can be tempting to keep on doing anything you can because you’re not certain the business will survive if you don’t,” says Lesley Cooper, founder and CEO of wellbeing consultancy WorkingWell. 

Ms Cooper argues that, while the physical and mental toll of pandemic-related illness will feel far more visceral to small businesses, they can recover more quickly than larger counterparts. “An elephant turns around more slowly than a mouse. 

“Smaller businesses can innovate faster, make decisions quickly and decide on new ways of working. Being small means they can have conversations, they know where people are and employees can be honest when they can’t cope. They may have fewer resources, but there can be better opportunities for conversation and connection.”

‘This has impacted me massively’ 

As a Master of Ceremonies and BBC football reporter, Dave Sharpe felt the financial impact of coronavirus keenly, with events and matches cancelled. But it’s the health impacts that continue to haunt him. 

Mr Sharpe came down with the virus in March 2020, after a visit to his mother in hospital. “They suspected the woman in the next bed had Covid-19, but at the time there was no official guidance about isolation,” he remembers.

For three weeks he experienced breathlessness and fever, and lost his sense of smell – at one point feeling as though his “life was draining away”. Both he and his wife, who worked in airport retail, were unable to work, so there was no money coming in. 
An antibody test two months later showed that he had not recovered and was still producing antibodies, because he was still fighting the virus. He continued to experience fatigue and struggled to get treatment, with one doctor merely suggesting he take a holiday. 

“I’d recently changed my status to sole trader with HMRC, but because I’d only been trading under this status for 18 months I couldn’t show them complete accounts for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme,” he adds. He later discovered he could claim a limited amount of sick pay, but was forced to dip into £7,000 of 
savings for day-to-day living expenses. 

 

“The stress and anxiety caused by this is as bad as long Covid itself,” says Mr Sharpe. “I know there are people who have had to learn to walk again, so I don’t like to complain, but this has impacted me massively.” 

One silver lining has been the support from FSB Care. “They may not be experts in long Covid but they sent me resources to help with my anxiety, and when I was caring for my elderly parents they pointed me towards PodPlan, a one-stop-shop for help and information on things like social care,” he adds. “They have been a huge help.”

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