‘I felt pushed out’: long Covid sufferers fight for fairness in the workplace

“Long Covid has had an emotional, social, physical and professional impact on me,” says Sarah Barley-McMullen, 53, who felt forced to leave a job she loved, as a senior academic, when she was unable to negotiate a manageable working pattern.

She caught the virus in January 2021, and more than two years later is still experiencing a battery of debilitating symptoms, including hearing loss, mobility problems, rapid changes in heart rate, and an inability to cry, which she says has hit her mental health.

“I was off work for 10 months – but I was desperate to get back to doing the job I loved,” she says. “I went back to work in November 2021. At first, work were supportive and I was allowed to come back on a phased return, doing a set number of hours each week. By Christmas, I’d managed to get up to doing about three days’ work over five days.”

However, she says after Christmas, she was told this phased return to work was over, and she would need to come back full-time – including two days a week on campus.

“I was then told that my team was being restructured and my job as a senior manager was being replaced with a higher level role,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t well enough to do that and asked whether my role could stay at the same level. I was told, ‘maybe you need to ask yourself whether you are well enough to stay’. It was a shock, and I felt pushed out.”

“I think it was the lack of understanding and lack of awareness of long Covid,” she says. “They didn’t know anything about it.”

She ended up accepting a redundancy package, and was able to claim her pension early on grounds of ill-health, but she says: “I felt lost, frustrated and devastated – I was only 52 and I wasn’t ready to finish my career. I also loved my job.”

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Barley-McMullen has since set up a consultancy and continued working from her home in Derbyshire, which she argues demonstrates that she could have remained in her post if her employer had been willing to accommodate her needs. She has been helped by the charity Long Covid SOS, with which she now works.

“Covid hasn’t gone away, it’s not just a nasty virus. People have lost loved ones, they’ve lost lifestyles and they’ve lost their health,” she says. “We need to live with Covid now. And living with Covid means listening to it and understanding the impacts, not pretending it has gone away”.