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Path from the pandemic: Working past long Covid


Few studies explore how post-viral disease blocks staff from getting back to business

Since Covid-19 swept the world back in 2020, millions of euros have been poured into researching the virus.

Some scientists have set to work identifying the disease’s weak spots and attacking them with tailor-made vaccines, while others have focused on how the virus spreads or how it targets the body.

A number of researchers now say that, while these efforts must continue, more support is needed for work on living with long Covid. 

During the first two years of the pandemic at least 17 million people in Europe are estimated to have suffered with this collection of drawn-out post-viral symptoms including fatigue, breathlessness and brain fog.

Work into understanding the biology of long Covid is already underway, but few scientists to date have looked at how long Covid is impacting sufferers’ lives.

“As the pandemic continues to soar, along with the development of long Covid, I believe that the effect of long Covid on the workforce and the workplace should be on the agenda to develop pathways and strategies of how to respond,” says Sarah Cuschieri, a member of the European Public Health Association chronic diseases section steering committee.

She says that a “small number of studies” have explored long Covid, but only a “minimal” number of those are exploring the knock-on effects for the workplace.

Back to work

Supporting staff who want to return to work, but find their post-Covid symptoms too debilitating, is a growing problem. 

In a paper commissioned by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, published in May, researchers found that although “numerous studies of long Covid are underway, more research is needed into the effects on working-age people”.

“There is a need for further research on long Covid that clarifies the root causes and what works to reintegrate workers into work,” a spokesperson for the agency said, arguing that it is “important to know which interventions are needed to reintegrate workers into work and what works best”.

A European Commission official says it is already taking the issue seriously. “We are aware of the impact of the long-term effects of Covid-19 infection,” the official says. “That’s why we are tackling this on several fronts.”

They point out that the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has developed guides on returning to work after long Covid for employers and workers.

Meanwhile, some long Covid research is being funded through the EU’s seven-year, €95.5 billion research funding programme Horizon Europe, including one early-stage project exploring treatment and rehabilitation.

Coordinators for the project said in a joint statement that they hope to add to treatment recommendations and will follow up when patients are able to return to work.

Despite the ongoing research, patient groups say there needs to be a better understanding of the consequences of long Covid, such as those with severe symptoms having to switch to less demanding roles.

Ann Li, chair of the patient group Long Covid Europe, says: “There have been several newspaper articles about the way long Covid affects the workplace, but as long as governments don’t understand the huge impact it has on every country, they won’t respond accordingly.”

As the virus continues to circulate across Europe, more and more sufferers of long Covid will soon be looking to researchers for answers on how they can pick up the pieces of their lives. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe