Asthma and the workplace

Working life and asthma

In our interviews people described ways in which having asthma had impacted on their work and finances. Generally, people said it hadn’t affected their ability to work, or only very rarely. As David said, "Do I have an illness which prevents me to do certain things on a daily basis? I would say 99% of the time I would say “no” to that. There is just that 1%, then I would have to say “yes”."
Occasionally people reported feeling embarrassed or annoyed by having asthma symptoms in the workplace, even if in general their work was not affected. Asthma had limited some people’s choices about specific careers or jobs, or they had had to make changes in their work lives. A few people had to give up work because of having very severe asthma.
Eileen chose to tell her employer about her asthma, but some others had preferred not to mention that they had asthma. The decision is likely to depend on how supportive people think their employers will be, if there are any safety implications, or perhaps to understand if people need time off. Sometimes people worried they might be seen as less employable, even if they never or rarely had to take any time off.
Sometimes people found that aspects of the workplace itself could trigger their asthma, for example where it felt stuffy, or there were marked changes in temperature during the day or in different parts of the building. (See section on occupational asthma below).
Mixing with other people with colds and sniffles either at work or commuting was a worry if this could trigger their asthma. Chris was a teacher and sometimes found it difficult having to do games lessons outside with the children, but otherwise her work was unaffected. Dee had to do a lot of travelling for her job, but her GP gave her some prednisolone that she could pack in her travel bag in case her asthma flared up when she was away from home. Andreane said sometimes it could be difficult if, for example a colleague was wearing a strongly scented perfume that might trigger her asthma, because it could seem offensive to say something about it.

People said they tried their best to take as little time off sick as possible, but inevitably for some there had been times when they needed to. We were also told about employers and colleagues who had tried hard to be flexible and find ways to make things easier. Jane remembers that shortly after she’d returned to work after a serious asthma attack a colleague insisted on accompanying her on the train to a meeting to make sure she was all right. Nicola’s boss has asthma himself "he completely understands, because he’s had the same problems".
Jan is self-employed which means she doesn’t have an employer to worry about, but she has only ever had to miss one meeting because of asthma in 20 years. Generally people made a point of ensuring that colleagues at work, or when they went out socially knew that they had asthma and what help might be needed in the event of an asthma attack.
While some employers were very accommodating and understanding, people worried that they might be seen as lazy or not pulling their weight, and  wanted to demonstrate their ability to do the job well. Catherine said, ‘I’m off sick less than healthy people because I manage it.’ Mary commented, "I wouldn’t want to be taken on a job and then, you know, having them tortured trying to accommodate me, by giving me shifts and, you know, wondering “will she’ll make it? Will she be in?”…I try to be dependable and reliable." She will arrange to swap shifts rather than ask for time off sick.
There may be similar worries when applying for a new job.
Faisil had to take a lot of time out of school as a teenager because of his health, so his career opportunities had also been limited by his lack of qualifications.

As in Jenny’s case, asthma had had a big impact on some people’s working life. For people with more severe symptoms, doing a full time job might be too stressful or tiring. Mary, whose asthma is ‘chronic and severe’ works part time in the evenings because that’s the best time of day for her. "If I was tired in the afternoon, I would have had an hour’s sleep before I go to work and I would have had all the medication. That’s why I choose to work that. People will come in and they’ll say, “Oh, do you not get sick of working at this time of the evening?” I don’t. It suits me perfectly."

Jane had wanted to go to university after leaving school but wasn’t able to take up the place because she was too ill. Both Jane and Alice (below) joined the civil service when they were in their early 20’s and had managed over the years to forge successful careers but Jane had some regrets about not having been able to go to university. Both women have severe asthma and eventually some years later both had to give up working. Jane feels that her life might have been quite different if she had got her degree and feels now as though she’s been ‘thrown on the scrapheap’. Alice says that her asthma is easier to control and manage now she isn’t at work. Some people had started doing some voluntary work for Asthma UK since leaving work, which gave them opportunities to support other people with asthma.

Ann was finding it difficult to find a new direction in her work life and to find a new job that would be stimulating but at the same time not as demanding as her previous job. Jenny, who was given medical retirement at 30, also hoped she might find ‘just a little role that I can do well in’ and explained how not being able to work had affected her sense of herself.
Esther’s daughter also had asthma and she sometimes found it difficult to combine work and taking care of her daughter’s needs. One time she lost a job as a supply teacher because she rushed off to the hospital when her daughter was taken ill, and was seen as unreliable.
Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is the most common cause of adult onset asthma and makes up 9 -15 per cent of cases of asthma in adults of working age (Asthma UK March 2015). People develop asthma because they are exposed to dangerous substances at work. It can take weeks, months or even years to develop, depending on the person and the substance. Andreane developed occupational asthma when she was working on some files that were very old.
(Also see ‘Finances and benefits’, ‘Relationships, family and friends’ and ‘Managing asthma – reviews and action plans’)


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