Helping people with COVID-19 return to work: Our rehabilitation story so far

The latest figures on the impact of COVID-19 on our customers’ employees show that more than 1 in 20 Group Income Protection (GIP) claims Unum received for people unable to work in the 9 months to 30th September 2021 were for COVID-19 or a related illness.1

And people are still contracting the disease. Moreover, COVID-19 can become long-term (known as long COVID), which the NHS defines as having COVID symptoms for 5 weeks or longer. It can even turn into post-COVID syndrome, a definition for those still suffering symptoms after 12 weeks that cannot be attributed to any other diagnosis.2

Supporting employees through COVID-19

How do you best support these people through what may well be a prolonged illness and ensure the best chance of recovery and a return to their old life? Or, better yet, intervene early and provide support before their health declines to the point they are unable to work?

At Unum, we feel the answer is an individualised programme of rehabilitation combined with absence management and return to work support tailored to each employee’s needs that also works closely with employers to achieve the best outcome.

Our team of vocational rehabilitation consultants (VRCs) is in-house. GIP customers can refer any covered employee for early intervention support and guidance for any absence-related issues, including COVID-19, long COVID or any other COVID-related condition. This can include offering support before a claim even occurs to prevent a further decline in an employee’s health and wellbeing.

The team includes medical professionals such as psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to provide a holistic approach that helps guide people physically and mentally on their road to recovery.

Crucially, we offer support even before an employee becomes so unwell that they are signed off sick. Early intervention secures far better outcomes as we can tackle smaller, root causes of health concerns before they become far bigger problems.

Our COVID-19 rehabilitation success stories

Excluding referrals actively receiving support from a VRC, of the rehabilitation cases we received for COVID-19 or a related illness between the start of February 2020 and 5th October 2021 we’ve managed to help 95.9% return to work or achieve an agreed outcome.3

The support our VRCs offer — both before and after a claim — can include:

  • Providing a comprehensive and detailed gradual return to work plan as the employee’s health begins to improve
  • Negotiating flexible hours for employees struggling with fatigue and similar symptoms
  • Working with employers and employees to introduce accommodations to balance both the return to work and the employee’s health, such as modifying work tasks to meet the needs of both parties
  • Psychological support to cope with any lingering mental health symptoms caused by COVID-19
  • Assistance with lifestyle management and other self-help techniques to help the employee feel truly in control of their own recovery.

Early intervention benefits not just the employee, for whom early support aims to prevent a further decline in their health requiring sickness absence, but also the employer in keeping an employee well and working to the best of their ability.

With this in mind, we also provide considerable support for employers to help them manage employees with long-term conditions, including COVID-19 and related illnesses. This includes webinars and CPD-accredited line manager training to help them feel confident when supporting employees with long-term conditions.

Why rehabilitation support matters

Feedback from line managers has been positive, with one attendee of such a session stating: “I think this should be mandatory training as it is relevant to everyone, particularly to those who do not have an awareness [of how] long-term conditions impact every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. As a minimum ALL line managers should take part to raise awareness.”

Paula Coffey, Unum’s Head of Claims, Rehab and Medical Services, comments: “It’s important to note that whilst the emphasis of rehabilitation is on getting well, it’s also about ensuring people have access to the right tools at the right time.

“For many people who’ve faced or are facing COVID-19, long COVID and other related illnesses, it may take time to rebuild their health and wellbeing. Unum is proud and privileged to be part of that for so many people and it’s a service we will continue offering to everyone, not just COVID-19 sufferers, for a long time to come.”

1 Unum internal data
NHS, Long COVID: the NHS plan for 2021/22, June 2021, p.8
3 Unum internal data

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