Your web browser is outdated and may be insecure

The RCN recommends using an updated browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome

With the Office for National Statistics estimating that around 122,000 health care workers in the UK have long COVID, how these staff are supported by their employers is becoming a key issue for the RCN. 

In September 2021, RCN rep and staff side chair Pauline Harrison heard that two members living with long COVID were facing escalating sickness absence proceedings. One was at a stage where they could potentially be dismissed, and Pauline knew she had to act. “The trust was treating people with long COVID as they would those with normal sickness,” she explains.

Another member had respiratory problems, which were being managed at a special clinic, plus brain fog and extreme fatigue. “She was doing everything she’d been asked to do to manage the symptoms of her illness,” says Pauline. “However, she found no leeway at all in the way her absence was dealt with. It felt very unfair. I knew I had to act to fight for my members.”

Long COVID shouldn't trigger the usual approach to long-term sickness absence

When Pauline spoke to other unions representing different health care professions, it became clear they were experiencing similar problems with their members too. “Yet there are unanimously agreed national and regional guidelines that say while long COVID should be managed, it shouldn’t trigger the usual approach to long-term sickness absence.” 

Overturning the decision 

Concerns were formally raised and, with the whole of staff side in agreement, Pauline led discussions to try to overturn the policy. In February 2022, the trust finally backed down. Now they’ve agreed to pause any triggers for long COVID-related absences for three months, with those who’ve already faced proceedings having them rescinded.

“We achieved a U-turn, which was a really good outcome,” Pauline says. “It illustrates how well we worked with other unions, how strong we are together and how instrumental the RCN has been in leading the way. Unless we’d acted, some members with long COVID could have lost their jobs. It was so worrying for them. I had one member in tears – but because of the support she’s received, she’s now thinking about becoming an RCN rep.”

A meeting to discuss what happens next has also been agreed. “We want to see what the national guidance says,” explains Pauline. “Then we’ll ask the trust to follow that and not deviate with their own version.”

Taking a united stand

Pauline has been supported from the beginning by RCN regional officer Wes Auden. “When I first heard about what was happening to our members, I felt what the trust was trying to do was fundamentally and morally wrong,” he says. “If we let the dam wall leak on this issue, the whole dam could collapse, potentially impacting RCN members all over the country. I knew we had to take a strong and united stand.”

Wes was particularly aware that the numbers of nursing staff affected by long COVID were likely to grow, with the pandemic far from over. “Long COVID is a new condition that we still know very little about,” he says.

We weren’t backing down and the trust realised they were on a road to nowhere

“But we do know that people have been experiencing its effects for more than a year and it’s disabling. It needs to be treated as a disability, rather than managing it in the same way as long-term sickness absence. Otherwise, we could eventually be losing a lot of staff not only from the trust but from health care providers around the country.”

Wes believes the strength of unions working together was crucial in the trust’s decision. He advised Pauline to speak to her fellow staff side unions early on to ascertain if they were experiencing the same problems.

When it became clear they were, he spoke with fellow regional officers about the situation and guided Pauline to seek a way in which the unions could work together to bring about the right outcome for members. “We weren’t backing down one bit,” he recalls. “I think the trust realised they were on a road to nowhere.” 

Words by Lynne Pearce. Image by Lucy Hunter.

Tips to help reps facing similar challenges 

  • Engage with your staff side colleagues at an early stage. Challenge as a group and with one voice.
  • Make sure you have a defined leader who will take the issue forward. 
  • Trust your instincts and if something feels wrong, but you’re not sure, seek advice from your regional RCN officer. They’re there to support you, so talk to them at the earliest opportunity. 
  • Use your staff side effectively. Tap into that network, finding out if your colleagues have had similar experiences and have good ideas of what to do next.
  • Do your research, seeking help from your regional officer if necessary to source information. This way you can be clear what is agreed nationally or regionally, to enable you to advocate a case from a position of informed knowledge.

Read next