Post-pandemic? Mild Covid? Once again, the semantics of a public-health crisis are at odds with the on-the-ground reality.
There’s growing evidence that Covid can produce symptoms lasting weeks, months, perhaps years. A review of studies published by Oxford University Press found up to 35% of mild Covid infections resulted in persistent symptoms, with “major consequences for work and daily functioning.”
Another study concludes long Covid, as the condition is known, might be keeping as many as 15% of workers out of the workforce—at a time when employers are struggling to find talent. The US government puts the number of Americans with long Covid anywhere between 7.7 million and 23 million.
Yet another reality of long Covid: Patients are struggling to find either doctors to take them seriously or doctors with expertise in the condition. And so before you can get your employer to accept your diagnosis and accommodate your unique needs, finding a doctor who does feels imperative.
“There are doctors who will sweep your symptoms under the rug and say, ‘Oh, you're just having anxiety,’ or ‘You need more sleep,’” says Raven Baxter, a science advocate and molecular biologist. She spoke recently about her own long Covid journey on the Our Body Politic podcast. “They don't really know how to address your issues. It's important to try to find someone who does have a solid foundation of knowledge about long Covid (such as) joining an advocacy group or support group."
Clearly, there is a role companies will have to play. Maybe more of that support should come from your office.
I spoke recently with Ted Drake, the global accessibility leader at Intuit, about all the ways workplaces are leaning into existing policies, from medical leave to disability support, to accommodate the wave of workers with long Covid.
“Long Covid marks a transitional period for disability awareness and support,” Drake says. “Even beyond long Covid, we’re seeing more employees talking openly and honestly with their teams and their managers about their mental, emotional, and physical needs. This open dialogue creates opportunities for companies to better their policies.”
Interestingly, he also said companies need to think about the effects of the condition, such as brain fog and an inability to focus, when designing products. Intuit’s products include tax-prep application TurboTax, personal finance app Mint, the accounting program QuickBooks, credit monitoring service Credit Karma, and email marketing platform Mailchimp.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with Drake, edited for space and clarity:
Is long Covid real? How do we know?
Long Covid, or PASC [Post-acute Sequelae of Covid-19], is absolutely a real condition that’s been recognized by the World Health Organization and other health authorities. Symptoms can include fatigue, breathlessness, lack of mental focus or clarity, or forgetfulness that last for months. It can be difficult to recognize symptoms right away, especially because symptoms can overlap with other illnesses and disabilities.
Research on causes and impacts of long Covid is advancing rapidly, and scientists are learning more about factors that might help us truly know whether an individual has long Covid in the future.
We are also hearing about individuals experiencing symptoms associated with long Covid in forums we host at Intuit to discuss mental health, disabilities, and other relevant topics. We hope that as we continue to discuss the symptoms, employees recognize what they are experiencing and feel comfortable seeking the accommodations or assistance they need.
What are workers' rights if they have long Covid?
Long Covid may qualify as a disability per the government. Employers cannot treat anyone negatively because of a disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers have the right to workplace accommodations.
Companies must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with long Covid as they would with any other disability, mental or physical. At Intuit, we have disability accommodation policies and processes that help impacted employees be successful and meet expectations for their role. In the case of long Covid, accommodations could include providing reduced hours of work or flexible schedules, modifying non-essential job duties for a period of time, taking additional breaks, or even taking a temporary leave of absence.
What proof is needed to show employers?
While this might vary across workplaces, Intuit requires a note to clarify what accommodations an employee might need given their underlying condition or diagnosis. Given the Biden administration’s commitment to accelerating an interagency national research action plan on long Covid, it should become easier to diagnose, treat, and find services and support for long Covid, and [it] will hopefully make the process easier for employees seeking accommodations from their workplace.
What if symptoms of long Covid are sudden or random, and I want to work through it, but sometimes I can't. How do I communicate this or account for this at my job? Any tips?
Long Covid is frustrating. The delay in recognizing symptoms could cause people, and their employers, to question their ability to meet job expectations, leading to worsening job performance reviews or even unemployment. There will be times when people struggle to remember how to do a task, don’t have the energy to work a full day, and find it difficult to concentrate through a Zoom meeting. It’s important to understand they are still recovering and experiencing a common symptom of Covid.
Communicating or accounting for long Covid at a job requires the individual to recognize their symptoms, advocate for support, often in real time. It’s critical that employees feel safe and able to have conversations with their managers about what they’re experiencing and what they need—and stay open to touching base regularly as long Covid symptoms ebb and flow. A company’s HR team can also help with the accommodations process, leave and time-off options for care, and other support resources.
Can you liken long Covid to any other ailments? Do you draw inspiration from other leave policies companies have relied upon?
While the effects of long Covid can be both physical and mental, patients often rank cognitive functions at the top of their concerns, forcing companies to recognize long Covid as a mental impairment, which requires accommodations. Some of the symptoms, including depression, anxiety and brain fog, overlap with other mental impairments. Most employers have the policies and accommodation procedures in place for disabilities, mental impairments, and medical conditions, and can leverage many of those same policies for long Covid.
What did I forget to ask you?
We’re already thinking about how long Covid might impact our customers and the way they interact with our financial product suite. I recently spoke at an Assistive Technology industry conference about long Covid, brain fog, and how to inclusively design for people with this condition. Our goal was to raise awareness of this important topic—not only at a workplace level, but at a core engineering and product level, so these accommodations are built in from the start.
In the case of our own products at Intuit, like TurboTax, we have made changes in recent years to make the in-product dialogue more conversational, which accommodates people with brain fog, dyslexia, and now long Covid. A consistent voice and low cognitive load might help somebody with a mental impairment who is trying to hit the tax deadline. Additionally, we offer great advice on accessibility and inclusion in regards to content design on our website. We’ve also done work with animation to support people who need to reduce the motion they see on screen, avoiding continuous looping. Our Mint team recently teamed up with Sharecare to launch an in-product interactive course focusing on the science of stress management and mindfulness, among other topics. When Intuit employees openly share about their experiences with long Covid and other mental and physical disabilities, we can provide accommodations and start to think beyond our own workforce to how we might help our customers as they face the symptoms of long Covid, too.