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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, ME and Long COVID in the Workplace – What Should Employers Be Doing?

Employment Law

This October 2023, our Employment Law Team are launching Disability Matters, our third annual campaign to stamp out disability discrimination in the workplace. This year we are concentrating on employees who suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and other medical conditions such as Long Covid.

You are disabled under the Equality Act (2010) if you have a physical or mental impairment which has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ adverse effect on your day to day activities.

The charity Action for ME uses the term ME/CFS in line with the NHS diagnosis but acknowledges that this may be an umbrella term for a number of illnesses. They estimate that a quarter of a million people in the UK are affected by ME/CFS.

In the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, many people have also been diagnosed with Long Covid. The most common symptoms are extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell and aching muscles. The Office of National Statistics estimated in January 2023 that approximately two million people were experiencing long COVID symptoms, with 19% of these reporting that these symptoms had greatly limited their ability to undertake day-to-day activities.

Although recent reports suggest that a majority of people with long COVID will recover fully within six months to a year, this still means that a considerable amount of the working population are experiencing chronic long COVID symptoms.

Employers are legally obliged to avoid treating anyone less favourably due to their disability. Sadly, our Employment Law team deal with many cases where an employee has been discriminated against due to chronic fatigue and long COVID .

The Equality Act also states that there’s a duty to make reasonable adjustments if someone is placed at a “substantial” disadvantage because of their disability compared with non-disabled people. Substantial means more than minor or trivial.

We recommend that employers should consult with their disabled employees when making reasonable adjustments. Often, in chronic fatigue situations, it is helpful for employers to:

  • Allow their employee to work flexible or reduced hours
  • Work from home if possible
  • Take longer or more frequent breaks if required
  • Provide an allocated parking space near the entrance of the building
  • Alter the lighting or location of the employee’s work station if they are light or noise sensitive
  • Give as much notice as possible of any disruption to the employee’s working environment or routine
  • Review the employee’s contract if they are likely to require more absences than other employees

Although an adjustment that imposes a disproportionate burden on the employer is not considered reasonable, it is vital that employers work closely with their disabled employees in order to avoid them raising formal grievances and pursuing Employment Tribunal claims for disability discrimination.

Raising awareness of these issues is vital to help employees understand their legal rights in the workplace, and to help employers put best practice procedures in place to avoid discrimination claims.

We will be campaigning throughout October to ensure that employees and employers get the advice they need around ill health and disability at work. Our confidential and free advice line runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month – call 01273 609911 from 3.30pm – 5.30pm.

We are also running a virtual seminar for charities and non-profit organisations on Managing Ill Health and Disability in partnership with Community Works on Thursday 19 October 2023 at 10.30am. For more information and to book, click here.

Our campaign also includes a virtual seminar for HR and Employment Professionals on Managing Ill Health and Disability in association with MBL Seminars, from 1pm on Thursday 26 October 2023which you can book here.

In recognition of the campaigning work we carry out to stamp out disability discrimination in the workplace, Fiona Martin, Head of our Employment Team has been invited to be a panellist at the Westminster Employment Forum Policy Conference on Friday 1 December. Her talk will deal with Approaches to harnessing an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities. More details about the event can be found here.

We are committed to educating employers about supporting staff with ill health and disabilities By putting CFS/ME and Long Covid at the heart of our campaign we hope to create a greater understanding of these complex conditions so that disability discrimination at work becomes a thing of the past.

For expert advice on disability discrimination at work, contact our Employment Law team on 01273 609911, or email 

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T: 01273 609 991

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