Meningitis is a fast-acting disease that is difficult to diagnose and can be deadly. Furthermore, anyone can be affected and its impact can be life changing.
Thousands of people, young and old, are affected by meningitis in the UK every year and although the number of cases has been falling, it is still a troubling disease, which can have a wide ranging impact on family, friends and colleagues.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is a potentially deadly disease which involves the infection of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. There are two types of meningitis:
- Viral meningitis. This affects around 6,000 people in the UK every year and is the most common and least serious form of the disease. However, a survey by Meningitis Now found that 97% of respondents said they suffered continuing after-effects following recovery, including headaches, memory loss, exhaustion, hearing loss, anxiety and depression.
- Bacterial meningitis. Some 3,000 people a year in the UK are infected with bacterial meningitis and 1-in-10 of those people die. The most common form of bacterial meningitis is the meningococcal strain. Some bacteria causing meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning).
Signs and symptoms of meningitis
Meningitis is not easy to spot, partly because early symptoms tend to look like a cold or flu. Symptoms can appear in any order and experts recommend that you should not wait until the tell-tale rash appears on the skin. If in doubt – head to hospital. Symptoms include:
- High temperature (over 37.5C).
- Severe muscle pain or a stiff neck.
- Cold hands and feet.
- Drowsiness and difficulty waking.
- Sensitivity to bright lights.
- Skin rash, which does not fade when pressed with the side of a glass (not always present).
- Irritability and confusion.
- Convulsions or seizures.
After-effects of meningitis
Many people make a full recovery from meningitis but some may experience lingering problems, which may have an impact on a person’s ability to return to work. They include:
- serious complications such as deafness, blindness or brain damage;
- septicaemia, which can cause scarring, loss of fingers, toes or limbs, or organ damage;
- less debilitating but significant effects including memory loss, dizziness, aggressive behaviour, stiff joints, anxiety or depression.
Meningitis in the workplace
The germs that cause viral meningitis and bacterial meningitis are passed from person to person by coughing and sneezing, and can be spread through poor hand hygiene. However, most people who are exposed to the germs have other mild illness (such as a sore throat) and do not develop meningitis, and it is unusual for meningitis to be directly transmitted from one person to another. Antibiotics do not work on viruses so treatment will involve rehydration, painkillers and rest.
Employers rarely need to worry that there will be an outbreak among colleagues. The local public health officer may offer antibiotics to close contacts of the sick person, such as family members, but this is not usually necessary for work colleagues.
Advice for employers
Seeing a colleague fall sick with meningitis can cause concern and anxiety in the workplace so it is important that employees are given timely and accurate information about the condition and the risk to them (if any).
Employees suffering from meningitis may be absent from work for many weeks or even months before they recover enough to return. Employers should follow good practice in managing workers’ leave and return. Flexibility and understanding will help them return to a normal working routine:
- Keep in contact with the sick worker or their family and keep colleagues up-to-date.
- Offer flexibility with regards to working hours and allow for the employee to take time off for medical appointments.
- Adapt to any potential changes in terms of the employee’s capabilities. Offer a temporary change in duties as the employee returns to normal and bear in mind that there may be permanent changes in a person’s abilities. Discussions around this would need to be handled tactfully and expert advice may be required from Occupational Health.
- Be prepared to provide specialist equipment (adapting a workstation to accommodate a wheelchair) and offer retraining, where required.
- Sufferers of viral meningitis report feeling that their illness is often played down because it is ‘only’ viral. Be sensitive and understand that, for many, this is a life changing illness.
For more information about supporting staff with health issues at work, visit the Fit For Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).
Advice for employees
Recovery from meningitis can be slow and there may be lasting effects. Take time to make a full recovery. Talk to your employer about the options for making a phased return to work, with shorter hours and lighter duties for an agreed period of time.
Communicate with your manager and be honest about what work duties you can manage, and when you are likely to return to work. Be open and flexible to change.
Fit for Work offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit For Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).