As the phenomenon of coronavirus long-haulers — individuals who display symptoms for months following infection — becomes more prominent amid the ongoing pandemic, plan sponsors are taking a flexible and individualized approach through their human resources practices and benefits offerings to support impacted plan members.

Mike Mousseau, national well-being and engagement consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., says while the topic is coming up more often in conversation with the consultancy’s plan sponsor clients, he believes it may be more widespread than reported. A September 2021 report from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table made a conservative estimate of roughly 150,000 long-haul cases across Canada.

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“I think it’s still lingering out there. . . . It could be that some employees are scared to bring it up and, because we’re working from home, maybe people are getting by and misdiagnosing it themselves as burnout or ‘languishing.’”

While the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant in recent weeks is delaying return-to-office plans for many employers, the impact of long-haul cases is another variable to consider as part of RTO planning, says Mousseau.

“Chances are, there’s going to be [a long-hauler] in the organization. A lot of companies are thinking, ‘What can we do if that person can’t return to the office or do their job?’ They’re looking at their policies and really evaluating what’s going on, maybe evaluating awareness within the organization with regard to symptoms and educating employees as to what supports are available, such as employee assistance programs.”

He says this includes a re-evaluation of the physical and cognitive demands of each role and potentially a review of job training as a whole. “Some organizations can be caught off guard, so maybe they need to consider cross training other employees [to cover for long-haulers] and to allow long-haulers to take on other roles.”

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In addition, Mousseau says his plan sponsor clients are looking at how their existing benefits offering can support continuity of care for employees struggling with long-haul symptoms. “Maybe it’s access to a family doctor — just simple little things they can do to ensure family physicians are seeing these cases. There’s also maybe an opportunity for employees, employers and insurance carriers to create a partnership and look at what’s happening.

“It’s kind of a phantom illness at the moment — these claims started to come in and the employee appears fine. Every employer should look at the full breadth of their benefits and ensure that they’re highlighting how these offerings can assist employees [with long-haul symptoms]. Organizations need to assess what’s available and use targeted communications to show employees how these different programs can help.”

Cheryl Nicholson, manager of group life and disability at iA Financial Group, says while the insurer is seeing disability claims related to the coronavirus, very few of them are for long-term claims. “The truth is that we’re not seeing a significant impact from long-haul COVID-19 in disability claims. We’re definitely dealing with it and supporting individuals on claim who have a diagnosis, [but] it’s just not that prevalent.”

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She says iA Financial is taking an individualized approach to each claim due to the wide range of symptoms that patients can experience. Nicholson notes that, as an employer, iA Financial is  increasing wellness days and wellness offerings in terms of subsidies to ensure employees stay healthy.

“For us, it’s listening to the plan member and understanding what their experience is and how the symptoms are impacting them. In cases where the symptoms are milder, plan members can start return-to-work activities and, in those situations, we’re working with plan sponsor clients and they’re taking a similar supportive and flexible approach. . . . Where there are individuals having more significant challenges as a result [of long-haul symptoms], we’re supporting them through treatments and rehabilitation options and working with the employer when the employee is ready to transition back to work.”

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