Study: Many COVID-19 'Long-Haulers' Unable To Return To Work After 6 Months

Woman putting on face mask while she's in the car.

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Key Takeaways

  • A preliminary study is thought to represent the largest collection of symptoms identified in the "long COVID" population, or people who continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms months after their diagnosis.
  • Researchers noted that the most common symptoms after a period of six months were exhaustion, post-exercise tiredness, and cognitive dysfunction.
  • Lasting symptoms prevent many from returning to work even six months after the initial infection.

A recent study on the long-term effects of COVID-19 found that most people with ongoing symptoms could not return to work at full capacity for six months or longer after their initial diagnosis. The December study—thought to be the largest collection of symptoms observed in the "long COVID" or "long-hauler" population—was pre-printed in medRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The study was led by the all-volunteer Patient-Led Research for COVID-19, a group of long-term COVID-19 patients who are also researchers in relevant fields. The experts noted that patients who had symptoms for longer than six months experienced, on average, 13.8 different symptoms in month seven. Researchers examined the symptoms of long-term COVID-19 on 3,762 people aged 18 to 80 from 56 countries.

Long COVID refers to the experience of patients who have had lingering illness after testing positive for COVID-19, with lasting symptoms such as shortness of breath, migraine headaches, and chronic fatigue.

The study tracked 205 symptoms over seven months. The researchers focused on patients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as well as a lingering illness that lasted over 28 days. The study also limited participants to people who had contracted COVID-19 before June 2020—allowing for symptoms to be tracked for six months.

What This Means For You

COVID-19 symptoms may linger in many patients long after signs of initial infection. If you're experiencing these symptoms, know you are not alone. Talk to your doctor about ways to alleviate these symptoms. There are also Facebook support groups where you can connect with others in a similar situation.

Juggling Long COVID and Work

Returning to the workforce while battling long-term symptoms has proven to be a challenge for many struggling with long COVID.

“My husband is a long-hauler and it's greatly affected his work,” Linda Bennett, the wife of a COVID-19 long-hauler in Florida, tells Verywell. “He got it back in's been one heck of a roller coaster. He was hospitalized [in April]. He hasn't been able to drive at all since June, as most of the time, he loses feeling in his legs. He had to work from home up until he got serious brain fog in October." 

More recently, her husband saw a pulmonologist who prescribed him a CPAP machine, which Bennett says has helped soothe symptoms. Still, she says, her husband's oxygen levels fall in the middle of the day.

"The company has been extremely understanding, patient, and accommodating to the best of their ability," Bennett says. "My husband has always been a workaholic, so this has been a challenge like we've never faced before. His company is now putting him on an unpaid leave of absence. They have exhausted all avenues, we believe, and are hopeful that this too shall pass. We all just want him well and to be able to return to work.”

Almost half the interviewees (45%) reported needing an altered work schedule as compared with their pre-COVID-19 workday, while 22.3% said they couldn't work as a result of their illness. Of all respondents, 86% experienced relapses. Interviewees reported that the main triggers of those relapses were exercise, physical or mental activity, and stress.

After six months, the most frequent symptoms long-haulers that participated in the study reported were exhaustion, extreme tiredness after exercising, and cognitive dysfunction, also known as brain fog.

The results of the study won't come as a surprise to people who have been struggling with long COVID. “I was fit and healthy prior to May 4 last year,” Roxanne Williams,*a COVID-19 long-hauler from England, tells Verywell. “I was a key worker [essential worker] who moved supplies up and down the country. My job is very physical (lifting heavy weights, walking long distance on rough ground, very long shifts), but I loved it.”

"On May 4, I developed mild flu-like symptoms and isolated myself," Williams says. "This mild flu-like illness lasted roughly 11 days and I felt much better. Unfortunately, that remission only lasted three days before phase two started—my old symptoms (sore throat, cough, chest pain, fatigue, heart racing, and palpitations), plus new symptoms of severe fatigue, weakness, post-exertional malaise, plus many more."

Working through a slew of symptoms can make it difficult, or even impossible for many COVID-19 long-haulers to return to work, even after six months.

"Since then I have suffered this to a greater or lesser amount," Williams says. "I have not worked since May 4, and am still not well enough to even consider returning. My employer has been kind so far.”

If you're currently experiencing lasting COVID-19 symptoms, finding communities online may help you cope. Online Facebook support groups have grown as the pandemic rages on, offering a community for those struggling with long COVID.

*In order to respect their privacy, Roxanne Williams' name has been changed.

Long-Haul COVID Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Davis HE, Assaf GS, McCorkell L, et al. Characterizing long covid in an international cohort: 7 months of symptoms and their impactmedRxiv. Published online December 27, 2020 doi: 10.1101/2020.12.24.20248802

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.