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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.