Working 9-5 with severe asthma.

Working 9-5 With Severe Asthma

“It is easier to manage work, than it is to manage chronic illness.” – John Bradley

Asthma in the workplace is never an easy topic. As a person who was not shouting asthma diagnosis from the rooftops, and certainly not at the office, I have endured my fair share of stealth inhaler taking, sick days and office gossip. There was even an incident where I had to pretend that I was looking for something in a supply closet because I was so out of breath that I could not make it back to my desk. This incident was a learning lesson that I do not recommend learning the hard way. Colleagues should not have to drive you to the ER.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by John Bradley. John is a patient advocate and guru on chronic illness in the workplace. The similarities in our experiences, resonated with me. Here are some general guidelines.

Learning from others

Depending on the severity of your disease, your experiences will likely differ from mine. I went through a significant period of exacerbation where getting through the work day was a mighty feat. I recently heard a comment to describe the situation as “your work day takes everything out of you, that by the end of the day there is nothing left in the tank”. “That was certainly true for myself. I was never a napper but now I generally get 6 good hours out of a day before I need to recharge. The way that I made this work with my 9-5 job was to move towards a split day and a flexible schedule.

Reasonable accommodations

It took some negotiating and working with my employers on my accommodation needs. These needs are mostly covered under “duty to accommodate.” The realities of duty to accommodate or the employers rebuttal “within reason” or without causing undue “hardships” to your employer are tricky waters to negotiate. I was extremely fortunate that my employer was very understanding and I approached it from an attitude that I could do everything in my portfolio, however that I might need to do some things differently. It did take some finessing. Only disclose information about your asthma within the legal or human rights government parameters, or information that will help you achieve your health and career goals.

While you may gain empathy from telling employers or colleagues about how bad your symptoms are, it is not likely going to help you be seen as a good employee, and not a sick person. Employer flexibilities will vary. Be proactive on, how you will get your work done while balancing your asthma. I cannot stress enough that you should have a plan for how you are going to handle this. You need to demonstrate that you are a good be an employee first and a patient second.

Planning for the unpredictable

The most challenging part is dealing with an illness that is episodic. Many of my days are good, I don’t even think about my crappy lungs and then other days, I am being smacked in the face by it. The best thing is to have a plan, can you work from home that day or is it a day that you need to take a sick or personal day?

John Bradley breaks down the process as understanding the following in two main categories. The first category is what you need to understand about your illness.

  1. It wasn’t going away
  2. Juggling your illness can sometimes be a full-time job, in addition to your job or career. You will need to juggle many things at one.
  3. Identifying a career path where you can succeed at being employed and managing  your illness.
  4. Being successful at being ill
  5.  The only certainty, is uncertainty

Making it work for you

The second concept he discusses is, what do you do once you have sorted out the above considerations.

  1. Being ill vs knowing you are ill. There is a difference between being ill and having an outlook on your illness that you are still productive.
  2. Having a career/Health strategy. Understand where you want your career and health to go. Identify your priorities for both and make a plan to achieve those goals.
  3. Putting your strategy in action. This the management strategy that you determined in step 2.
  4. Sharing information with your employers. Be strategic. Only share what helps support your career/health strategy. You want to be seen as a good productive employee.
  5. Understanding what constitute success. Is success for you managing your full time job and severe asthma? Is it having a  focus on health and considering part time work instead?

There can be some stress involved in developing work strategies. However, once you have them sorted out, you may find that you are less stressed about that component and can keep things in balance.

I would love to hear what your strategies are for managing your asthma in the workplace.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


View Comments (19)
  • Sarahkate
    3 weeks ago

    Has anyone else experienced workplace bullying and malicious gossip about asthma? I actually have been angrily confronted with false accusations of “bringing flu to work” when I have patiently and politely explained to people multiple times over the past three years at this job that I don’t have the flu, I don’t have a cold, I don’t have “whooping cough” or TB (all these “accusations” delivered in bullying ways). I am not believed; HR will not do anything about this, but at my age (67) not sure I could actually find another employer. How do others handle these situations – if anyone else has experienced this? Thanks for offering strategies!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    3 weeks ago

    Hi Sarah and thanks for this post. Actually, our members have reported various issues on the job with that are asthma related. I did a brief search and found quite a few results that you may find interesting to read. Here are several articles for you to look over: I hope this is what you are looking for.
    Leon (site moderator)

  • JanetH
    2 months ago

    I have both moderate asthma AND migraines. My last job was pretty stressful and getting worse. I was able to transfer to another position this past summer. One of the huge perks is I again have an office after being in an open desk arrangement for several years (semi-closed cubicles, not even real cubicles). I usually stay in on lunch and rest for a half hour, and boy, does that make a HUGE difference in getting through the day. I am so thankful. I do have some new stress of learning a new job, but I’m enjoying the learning process, and sure beats the stress in the previous position.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 months ago

    Hi JanetH and thanks for your post. How lucky for you to have switched jobs, gotten a more private office and feel it’s all so much better than your previous job. You must be feeling pretty good now! We appreciate you sharing this with the community. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • Weezer
    3 months ago

    Great article thank you for posting this. It’s been very beneficial for me to remember the few changes I working full time can make a big change in terms of acceptance being aware that the only certainty is uncertainty.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    3 months ago

    Hi Weezer and thanks for posting in response to John’s article. I’m sure he will be pleased when he sees your post and comment. We appreciate your input. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • robbym
    3 months ago

    Excellent article. My current employer put me on a disability pension rather than work with me to find a way to keep me working. I’ve lost three careers due to health and ”undue hardship” and ”won” (if you can call it that) two human rights lawsuits. I received monetary compensation but still lost my career. Now I’m writing a book about my experiences and looking for a way to work from home. I feel excluded and ashamed and more than anything want to belong and contribute like everyone else.

    Your article gave me validation and comfort. Thank you.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    3 months ago

    Hi again, robbym, and thanks for your post. Remember, you are always welcome here! We understand your needs and wish you luck with your planned literary undertaking. Please do keep us posted as to your progress. Warmly, Leon (site moderator)

  • krishwaecosse
    3 months ago

    I certainly understand stealth inhaler taking. I work in education, and the last thing you want is a class of 7 year olds staring on as you’re trying to take your inhaler and catch a breath. Yes I might hold off longer than I should while at work, but the reality is that while I value my health, I also don’t want to be seen as the sick teacher who can’t breathe.

  • SamuelTaylor moderator
    3 months ago

    Thank you for sharing with us, krishwaecosse. Your situation at work is understandable. Thank you also for teaching, it can be a really intimidating position, especially with early adolescents. I can understand why you’re stealthy about it; I was too as a youth climbing coach.

    Having asthma flares shouldn’t make you feel unhealthy though. We can be very healthy in many ways but need a little extra support in other parts of our whole being, physically, emotionally and mentally. (: Just because our lungs need that extra support doesn’t mean that the rest of us isn’t doing great.

    I wish you the best of luck with the kiddo’s! If asthma ever comes up with one of your students, it’s an opportunity for education. Let us know how your doing. We love to hear from you.

    -Samuel, Team

  • LindyBlue
    5 months ago

    My asthma isn’t as bad now that I’m an adult, and I don’t think my coworkers would ever have to take me to the hospital. That said, I probably work through it when I really shouldn’t, when I feel weak and breathless and tired. Part of it is probably because I still had to go to school when I had pneumonia as a kid. As long as it wasn’t contagious, I had to be in class.

    Luckily, I only really face symptoms in the winter now. However, it sometimes leaves no energy at the end of the day for anything else, including things that would probably improve the asthma.

  • SamuelTaylor moderator
    3 months ago

    Hi LIndyBlue!

    Many people experience asthma letting up as they age, at least temporarily, sometimes becoming more sensitive again in later years. My asthma is almost identical to your’s, also getting triggered more during the winter months.

    It can be difficult, but sometimes I too, continue to work through the symptoms we experience during the day. Do you do anything to sooth those symptoms? I will drink hot peppermint tea on colder days; I find that the warm drink can open up my lungs.

    If you can make time for those things that will improve your asthma; the small things you do will add up and can generate momentum. Such as doing the things to improve your asthma, which will give you more energy to do more of those activities for example. (: It can all add up.

    Thank you for sharing with us! I wish you the best through the winter. It’s getting cold, so stay warm! (:

    -Samuel, Team

  • BreathAgain
    8 months ago

    I got lucky I work for a cardiologist 🙂 They have a nebulizer on hand and I have my inhaler and bring my own solution albuterol/ipatropium. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have these item available, I know for sure there would be a ton of sick days.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    8 months ago

    Hi Breathagain. – sounds like you have a real advantage when it comes to going to and being at work. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • Katbird
    8 months ago

    This was a very helpful article. My severe asthma was part of the reason I was forced to retire early. I did most of the activities described to hide my asthma. This was before the ADA was passed. I hope it is helping people with asthma stay working.

  • Breathe201865
    12 months ago

    Hi, Dia SWS. I’m new to and loving the support that it brings to us people who suffer from the lung disease called asthma. Keep up with the important articles exploring various facets of living with asthma. I’m not the only one who’s learning so much about my disease, with which I was diagnosed late in life. I’m middle-aged.

    This article of yours on “Working 9-5 with Severe Asthma” really hit home. I’m sorry for what you’ve experienced. I too am having an awful time at work because I’m increasingly being harassed by co-workers (who talk about my asthma behind my back yet right in front of me) AND by an exec from Human Resources. I got laughed at for mentioning that excess dust triggers both my asthma and my allergies.

    I have moderate to severe asthma and severe allergies. I have been belittled by co-workers, supervisors (who keep walking over to me as I work to ask, “Do you want to go home? Are you sure?”) and, as mentioned, the exec in HR.

    I will be seeking out upcoming lectures and seminars by Mr. John Bradley. I need to listen to what he is saying because, from what you explained in this article, he’s quite empowering. I consider myself to be a courageous person, but having asthma makes it hard to stand up for oneself (I don’t have enough hands to count how many meetings I’ve been pulled into in just the past six months) while fighting asthma flare-ups.

    Oh, and I find it disgusting that, while given the leanest of reasonable accommodations under the ADA, there are physical barriers created to keep me from getting relief. One supervisor totally blocked me from reaching my rescue inhaler until she realized I couldn’t speak. Her abominable act caused me to spasm haggardly in front of my co-workers and our customers. All she had to do is permit me to reach for my rescue inhaler and then step away to a discreet area or into the ladies’ room. She caused me undue physical harm. A few minutes later and I would’ve needed an EMT and an ambulance to the emergency room.

    By the way, my asthma is episodic with moderate to severe flare-ups. I’m so sick and tired of taking ambulance from work to the ER, and taking taxis from home to the ER — when my doctor’s office is closed, that is. I do have an excellent pulmonologist — who also serves as my immunologist (because I have severe allergies) — and I have a superb primary-care physician. Both doctors know that I’ve been having a devil of a time at my workplace because I’m asthmatic. The only solution, for now, is seeking a better job, even if it pays a bit less.

    I’m counting on for more and more crucial articles and tips for us asthma-sufferers. We deserve a positive quality of life as much as non-asthmatics. I go on vacations, laugh with family and friends, love my pet (I’m not allergic to my cat, neither am I to dogs, but I can’t own guinea pigs and hamsters — go figure).

    I wish you and all of my fellow readers here on a beautiful day.

  • anjaba
    2 months ago

    What your supervisor did when she blocked your access to your inhaler was assault . I know you said you have trouble speaking up for yourself but if it is within the time period you should file a complaint against her with the police. If you did this it would probably quash some of the harassment from others.

  • robbym
    3 months ago

    I’m sorry to hear you have faced abuse as a result of asthma. I have too, and unfortunately changing to lower paying work to increase flexibility was only temporarily helpful for me and I was forced into an early medical retirement at 41. I sincerely hope you fare better.

    On the positive side, there are many wonderful resources available (like this site) that I wish I’d found earlier. There is support and understanding available that can make a world of difference.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    3 months ago

    Hi again, robbym, and thanks for this post as well. We appreciate your input, comments, opinions, experiences. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

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