Navigating Return to Work with Long COVID
Symptoms are only half of the picture when it comes to Post COVID Syndrome (PCS). The other half is how long covid affects a person’s ability to live their lives. And one part of life that many patients with PCS have trouble with is work. In our Covid Activity Rehabilitation Program (CARP) at Mayo Clinic, only approximately 25% of patient were able to go back to their normal work 3 months out from their infection start. This is not surprising. It can be hard to come back to work after any medical condition, and this is especially true for long haul covid. As an occupational medicine clinic, CARP has helped many patients get back to work. Here are a few tips you can use to navigate the journey back to your livelihood.
It will be hard for your work to offer support if they don’t know how to help you. Clear communication with your employer and medical team will maximize your chances of successfully returning to work. How can you communicate effectively?
- Make sure your employer receives regular work recommendations from your medical team. We like to provide updates roughly every 2-4 weeks.
- When meeting with your medical team to create work recommendations, be an active participant. After all, you know your work best.
- Finally, talk to your employer regularly. I know it can be difficult to have these kinds of discussions. As hard as this may be, keeping them in the dark for weeks on end will only make the situation worse.
- Finally, don’t wait until scheduled appointments to adjust your work recommendations. If you are feeling better and ready to take on more work, let your medical team know instead of waiting three weeks. Same is true if things are getting worse. Constant communication is key.
Many patients are worried about returning to work because they are unsure how they will do when faced with their usual, busy workload. (I have never met anyone who said their work was easy). I have the same concern; it can take a long time for a patient to feel ready to jump back in at 100%. That is why we recommend a gradual return to work. For example, if you normally work eight hours a day, 5 days a week, then we might try a start back to work with 4-hour shifts, three days a week, with a day of rest between. This can help you ease back into the work environment.
Some employers, especially medium or large sized ones, have special jobs, called temporary alternative duties. These positions are usually less laborious and are designed to help employees with medical conditions re-enter the job environment. It is highly recommended that you explore such options with your work.
Do your homework
Unfortunately, temporary alternative duty is not available for everyone. To make matters worse, patients with long haul covid are often told not to return until they are “back to 100%.” This is not ideal as I’m not sure anyone starts working at 100%. In this case, you may find yourself out of the workplace for some time. But remember, that doesn’t mean you aren’t working. The important things that we all do during the day, like doing the laundry, cooking meals, and running errands; they can simulate work. For patients who find themselves at home, I recommend looking at daily activities as your job. By doing so, both you and your health team will be able to better estimate the kinds of activities you can do when it comes time to return to employment somehow. Remember, we work lots of ways. We just don’t always get a W-2 for it.
Focus on function
A question I often ask patients is “what are your goals for treatment.” One goal I hear a lot is “I want to be pain free and back to where I was before.” While I understand this desire, and one of my callings in medicine is to help with suffering, this goal can be very hard to reach. Instead, I recommend patients focus on improving their function. We have worked with many patients with Post COVID Syndrome now, and we know some patients will have a permanent change in their baseline health status. But just like with other serious medical conditions, that doesn’t mean you can’t live your life. When going back to work, you may have new challenges and even discomfort. But with treatment and new management strategies, you may be able to overcome such barriers and return back to work.
Connect with other people like you and share your recovery tips and successes in the Post-COVID Recovery & COVID-19 support group.