A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

Employment experiences when ill with Covid

In this section we explore the impact on employment when people we spoke with became ill with covid, and their experiences afterwards. There were lots of differences in people’s experiences. This is because of the wide variation in the severity and duration of covid symptoms, and also was influenced by different guidance in different job sectors.

The topics we cover in this section are: 

  • Seeking support from employers about taking time off
  • Impact of illness and restrictions on professional identities 

When covid illness was short-lived, people we interviewed had been able to return to work after a few days. For others the disruption was longer, and the persistence of symptoms made it difficult for them to go back to their usual level of activity.

 
Seeking support from employers about taking time off

Having conversations with employers about being ill and needing time off was easier for those with bosses and colleagues who were sympathetic about Covid. Abdul got Covid a year into the pandemic, when it had already affected many other people, and his bosses supported him. Sindhu’s employers were supportive too, even though she felt aware that her symptoms lasted for a while. For those working in teams, colleagues sometimes took over tasks to reduce the pressure to return to work until they were fully better.
 

 

Sindhu was conscious of her manager’s continued support despite a busy period at work.

Sindhu was conscious of her manager’s continued support despite a busy period at work.

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I am still taking it easy you know one day if I feel tired I am telling my manager, not feeling great today you know can I just take a half day off and he says yeah that’s absolutely fine. So, they are very, very supportive and because the year end is really busy as well, but they are very supportive. And if I want to take a break I just tell them no today is not my day just wanna take a break not because of my anxiety or anything but because I am generally feeling tired. You know some day maybe I have a late night and I don’t sleep well at night because I can’t properly lie down and sleep um you know so I do take breaks. I don’t think it has anything to do with work because in work I am not stressed out at all even though it is the year end because I know how supportive they are.


 
We also spoke with people with longer-lasting symptoms who did not feel well supported at work. They described an expectation from employers that they would be well enough to work at the end of the recommended Covid isolation period. Some people we spoke to had not fully recovered until several weeks, or sometimes months, after catching Covid. Having to repeatedly justify needing a longer period of recovery with employers was stressful and demoralising.
 
 

Adriana was asked to return to work after 14 days off, even though she was still unwell.

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Adriana was asked to return to work after 14 days off, even though she was still unwell.

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First day that I attempt to go outside after 14 days when I went downstairs and when I was coming upstairs I had to stop. I had to stop because my head was just spinning and I was feeling really weak and they wanted me to go back to work. You know the conversation wasn’t how are you doing, how are you? It was when are you coming back to work? Like just that kind of aggressively. And to be honest after that I booked another Covid test just to see how I was, because I was feeling very, very you know weak in my body and my head dizzy. I took another test, it came back positive again. And then I said, I had to ring my work and I said listen I had this and it’s positive again and they are telling me to isolate again so I am not going back to work ok. And then there was this controversy of ah no like you can come back to work because this is a false-positive [Laughs]. Ah but okay, it could be a false positive but I am not strong, you know I am not strong to go back to work. Why are you forcing me? And I had a lot of arguments with my bosses.

 

Mary felt her colleagues did not understand the reality of her symptoms.

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Mary felt her colleagues did not understand the reality of her symptoms.

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I found the tiredness quite devastating, but I remember going to, I had like what I would call like lung pain so pain in my back and I kind of like contacted the GP to say, “Look, I’m just worried about this and I’m breathless.” And I know that they weren’t seeing patients at the time, but I didn’t, I wasn’t very impressed with the care at all because I just don’t, I think that they ignored my primary diagnosis as well. So, I finally went to work. I still don’t think colleagues, because I work for the [employer name], they appreciate long Covid, the impact it has on you. You know, ridiculous requests of doing deadlines and whatever and when you’re physically tired, you just can’t do it. You really, really can’t do it and although you want to be a really good team player and do and you do the work that you’re able, that you were able to do, while I was in recovery, I could not do it. I couldn’t do it and see I had a bit of brain fog as well. So, I remember mentioning to one of my managers that I couldn’t do the report that she asked me because I couldn’t remember the names of the children and her response was, “Oh well doing the report will help with your brain fog.” And I just found, I just found that it was just a really unsympathetic world for people that, if you’d recovered from Covid and didn’t require any extra treatment or anything else like that. I think it was fine or if you wasn’t admitted into hospital, I think people say that they had a really positive good experience. But I think if you were in the community, you were kind of left alone and I don’t and I don’t think that people may understand enough about it and especially about long Covid, that actually even understand what it’s like to have Covid and the emotional impact that it has for some people, you know and that.


 
These negative experiences were especially painful for people we spoke to who worked in frontline public services. They felt that they had been helping other people throughout the pandemic, putting their own health at risk in the process. Sometimes they told us that they had not been well enough protected. A few people talked about experiencing a lack of respect from the public that they were doing their jobs in extremely difficult circumstances.
 
 

Emdad describes wearing a mask to protect himself while working in public transport, but is aware of the risks faced by keyworkers.

Emdad describes wearing a mask to protect himself while working in public transport, but is aware of the risks faced by keyworkers.

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I had to continue my job because I am working at like another front worker, front line worker so I have to go but worried about myself that I have to go, if I can get the virus or not but I try to wear the mask all the time but it’s still so many closest thing like I followed, still I had like a positive like in December during the second wave.

 

And a bus driver died, thirty six around, bus driver died because of the Covid because they came to work. If they don’t come to work, they stay home, they not die because of our job, nature of our job. If it’s like, you know, the war time or something, you had to go to do our job because we need to run the service otherwise how people move from one place to another place. This is like backbone. [The transport system] is like a running service and like a backbone of the [city]. If they don’t run the service, no one can move from here to there.

 

Gertrude, a care home nurse, felt upset by how nurses have been treated through the pandemic.

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Gertrude, a care home nurse, felt upset by how nurses have been treated through the pandemic.

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So, care workers, there was a point in time we were being, oh how shall I put it, we’d go to the market, the supermarket they learn you’re a nurse. I had, it’s funny in the beginning we were heroes, from being heroes we were hated so much and that’s when we’re told never to wear a uniform in public because some nurses were beaten, abused, verbally abused and all because we were being fed that from the hospital it’s spreading Covid. We should live in the hospital, live in the hospital. So yeah, there was that period in time where we were looked down upon for doing what we do, then I’m thinking we’re saving lives, your families lives, so we can resign. We can all resign now and leave your families on their own, so I don’t know, it’s a funny world we live in. One minute everyone is clapping, the next minute everyone is stoning us

 
Impact of illness and restrictions on professional identities

Many people we spoke to felt that their job was an integral part of their identity. The huge upheavals that the Covid-19 pandemic caused, in combination with becoming ill themselves, made people think more carefully about their jobs. It was difficult not knowing when things would change, and how to plan for the future.
  

 

A practising Ayurvedic doctor, Sonal found it difficult to access herbs since the pandemic, and was suffering from prolonged Covid symptoms.

A practising Ayurvedic doctor, Sonal found it difficult to access herbs since the pandemic, and was suffering from prolonged Covid symptoms.

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With some of the herbs, I cannot get it, cannot access. Some of the things I cannot practice the way I want to. So, I feel sometimes, frustrated in all. I, I’m adjusting and I have adjusted like everyone else. But that’s something that I want to do and I could do it. That’s not there. And I get ever so tired with physically and mentally, I get ever so tired by the midday or end, end of the day like five o'clock around that time. I guess I get so tired. And that’s something I am not understanding. All I’m thinking I’m getting old, or is it because of that or because of Covid that happen, I don't know. So, I don't know, something, something is.

 

For Paul X, a tour guide, Covid-related restrictions stopped his job completely for several months.

For Paul X, a tour guide, Covid-related restrictions stopped his job completely for several months.

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I remember sort of saying as well, I remember thinking clearly “I’d better work on me CV and go back to my office CV because there’s not that much here for guiding”, so I thought I’d better, you know, see what else is out there but of course, we realised there wasn’t. We probably could survive financially for a bit but it’s just a knee jerk reaction that I need to, I need to find a new career because there’s not any, you know, tours have been stopped. I remember, I remember saying something like, hopefully by June, I’m hoping by June it will be okay again, which seemed like a lot, that’s three months of work out of the window. I can’t, that seems like a, I thought that was a sensible approach. So okay, let’s write off three months then by June, which is the busiest month, I want to be back and that changed in my head to September. Then yeah and like now well, I might just change my mind because the news is but I’ve actually got no expectations now.

 

Tony Z who worked as a schoolteacher and a musician had both his jobs paused for a while.

Tony Z who worked as a schoolteacher and a musician had both his jobs paused for a while.

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It affected work for me because obviously schools were closed and I’m a teacher so I couldn’t, what hurt most was I couldn’t play and perform as a musician, doing gigs, that hurt me, because that’s my social life. That was the thing I live for the weekends, travelling round the country playing and performing so not being able to be in school teaching that was bad enough then not being able to play or perform that was even worse, so yeah.


 
People also talked about how they had missed being able to do their jobs ‘properly’. For example, GP Gwilym felt he missed many clues about how his patients were really feeling when he was only doing phone consultations.
 
 

GP Gwilym found it difficult to support his patients over the telephone.

GP Gwilym found it difficult to support his patients over the telephone.

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Yeah, just try and protect yourself as much as possible and, you know, try and do a risk assessment as do you have to do a face to face, you know? Can you get away with advice and things but, you know. I mean it’s been fairly difficult in the last year trying to deal with so many patients by telephone because it’s so different to how we’ve been trained and how we’ve always worked, you know. And it’s not been satisfactory. Very stressful and it’s not been enjoyable. Up until March last year, I enjoyed my work immensely and, but it’s you re-evaluate your job, you know, and it’s been difficult.

 


 
There were also some happy accounts where people described receiving unexpected kindness when they were unwell. Rabbi Wollenberg had worked tirelessly attending to his community’s needs in times of crises. He was pleasantly surprised when he himself received so many good wishes on becoming ill with Covid.
 
 

Rabbi Wollenberg felt gratitude for the good wishes he received when he got Covid.

Rabbi Wollenberg felt gratitude for the good wishes he received when he got Covid.

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When I got Covid, I got a real sense of community from my own congregation and wider community. So many people got in touch with good wishes. So many people contacted me to say, “I know you’re very hard working, please rest. We need you in one piece, it’s more important that you be well. Don’t overdo it, don’t rush yourself, don’t worry, we’ll cope, whatever.”


 

 

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