Support for students with Post-Covid-19 Syndrome

23rd March 2021 marked the first anniversary of the first lockdown of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)  Pandemic. At the start of the first wave of infections in March 2020, the general understanding of COVID-19 was that although a small minority of those who developed symptoms would need hospital care or may die, most sufferers could expect to be ill for around 2-3 weeks and then make a full recovery.

However, it has since become apparent that a significant minority of those who contracted COVID-19, even with initially mild symptoms, do not quickly return to full health and have found themselves living for months with a range of debilitating and fluctuating symptoms affecting various body systems and functions.  This condition – commonly known as Long COVID – has been identified to have two distinct stages:

  • Ongoing symptomatic COVID-19 – symptoms that last 4-12 weeks
  • Post-COVID-19 Syndrome  – symptoms that last for more than 12 weeks and can’t be explained by another diagnosis

Frequently reported symptoms of Post-COVID-19 Syndrome include fluctuating levels of :

  • Fatigue – both physical and mental (including the temporary cognitive impairment affecting ability to focus, sustain concentration and process complex information often referred as ‘Brain Fog’)
  • Respiratory distress and chest pain
  • Loss of stamina and post-exertional malaise
  • Other physical symptoms and impairments
  • Mental Health difficulties (Anxiety, Depression and for some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Until recently, the recent emergence and unknown duration of this new medical condition meant there was uncertainty whether Post-COVID-19 Syndrome  was likely be considered a disability under the terms of the Equalities Act 2010, due to requirement that conditions be long-term (of 12 months or more duration). This was the case even if the symptoms were clearly impairments that were having a substantial negative impact on an individual’s ability to do normal daily activities (the other key element in the definition of disability in the Equalities Act 2010).

However, the first anniversary of the UK’s first wave of infections brings the point at which there will be increasing numbers of people who will have been living with Post-COVID-19 Syndrome for a year or more and so meet the Equalities Act’s definition of disability in terms of both duration and impact. They will therefore become entitled to the Act’s protections against discrimination, including the requirement that Employers consider Reasonable Adjustments to mitigate the risk of discrimination in recruitment processes.

Post-COVID-19 Syndrome is currently most prevalent amongst the working-age population, so University Careers Services may now start to encounter students with this diagnosis asking for information and advice on reasonable adjustments in recruitment processes and in employment.

Organisations concerned with employees’ rights have started to address the issue of reasonable adjustments for existing staff returning to work while living with Post-COVID-19 Syndrome but as yet there are no recommended adjustments published to help recruiters with prospective employees with this condition.

So what information and advice on reasonable adjustments can University Careers Services provide for students and graduates with disabilities arising from Post-COVID Syndrome?

Suggested approaches:

  • Symptoms of Post-COVID Syndrome vary between individuals and over time, so it is important to initially establish each individual’s particular ‘constellation’ of difficulties at the time and consider their potential negative impact on participation in recruitment processes.  Once this has been done, the next step is to explore the best adjustments to mitigate the effects of those particular symptoms in specific recruitment processes likely to be encountered by the individual.
  • Recommended adjustments for people with similar difficulties due to other more well-established conditions are worth exploring.

For example, the recommended adjustments for severe asthma might be appropriate for impaired lung function as a result of Post COVID Syndrome  whilst the adjustments recommended for those with mild to moderate Anxiety Disorders, Depression or PTSD may also be helpful for those whose mental health has been negatively affected by Post COVID Syndrome . 

  • A number of the commonly-occurring symptoms of Post COVID Syndrome  are similar to those of the ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome , so suggested reasonable adjustments for recruiting people with ME/CFS may be appropriate:
    • flexibility around times and dates for interviews, assessment centres etc.
    • building rest breaks into longer interview/assessment procedures, or conducting different activities on different days. This can apply to online activities as much as those in-person.
    • permitting use of prepared notes to aid the candidate’s memory when giving answers to competency-type interview questions.
    • if recruitment and selection activities are to be in person, consideration of the physical demands of reaching and moving around the venue: if public transport could prove difficult, offer to reimburse a taxi fare or provide close car parking; ensuring an accessible location, eg. on the ground floor or in a room accessed by a lift
    • ensuring that environments (physical and online) minimise excessive noise, visual stimulation or other possible disturbances that can affect concentration and cause mental fatigue.

Some resources to find out more about Long COVID, the UK definition of disability and some of the other conditions and adjustments mentioned above.

Returning To Work | Your COVID Recovery

Long COVID | British Lung Foundation (blf.org.uk)

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/discrimination/protected-characteristics/what-counts-as-disability/

https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/severe-asthma/making-life-easier-with-severe-asthma/work-and-money-severe-asthma/

Yvonne Drakeley

Disability Careers and Employment Adviser

Lancaster University

y.drakeley@lancaster.ac.uk

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