"Asthma nearly cost me my job" - 1 in 9 adults with asthma have lost or worry about losing their job

An estimated 1 in 9 adults with asthma said they had lost their job or were worried about losing their job because of their asthma, [1] according to new figures released by Asthma UK.

The charity has revealed the figures, based on research with more than 12,800[2] people with asthma, as it issues expert advice on how to deal with asthma in the workplace. The findings reveal the debilitating toll asthma can have on the lives of people with the condition, including:

  • More than a third have had an asthma attack at work[3]
  • 1 in 10 of those surveyed said they had been disciplined or been given a warning at work because of their asthma[4]
  • Of those who had chosen to keep their asthma hidden at work, 3 in 10 were worried about their career prospects.[5]

The workplace can be a minefield for people with asthma, potentially exposing them to triggers that may be different from those that they encounter at home. Industrial or wood dusts, chemical fumes, harsh cleaning products, pollution, mould, dust, cold and flu viruses and stress can all trigger life-threatening asthma attacks.

Some people can also develop asthma because of where they work because they are exposed to higher levels of allergens or irritants. Workplaces that could pose a risk include bakeries, hospitals and healthcare settings, agriculture and painting industries.

Research into this area shows that annually, an estimated 4 million days have been taken off work in the UK because of asthma or asthma attacks.[6] Worryingly, international research also found that people were reluctant to use inhalers in front of colleagues because they felt “guilt, shame and embarrassment when using inhalers at work.”[7]

Asthma is a serious long-term condition which affects 5.4 million people in the UK and can be fatal, claiming the lives of three people every day. When someone with asthma comes into contact with a trigger, the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten, narrowing them and making it harder to breathe. Typical symptoms include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or shortness of breath.

There are simple steps which everyone with asthma can follow to reduce the risk of having a flare up at work: 

  • Keep a copy of your action plan at work 
  • Get to know the first aiders at work and talk to them about your asthma and how they can help you if you have an asthma attack.
  • Speak to your HR department or Occupational Health about your asthma and its triggers
  • Take your preventer inhaler (usually brown) every day as prescribed to keep down the inflammation in your airways
  • Always have your reliever inhaler with you so you can quickly deal with symptoms if you get them.
  • Be open with colleagues about your asthma triggers

Sarah,[8] who is a nurse, says that her asthma has had a major impact on her working life. She would often hide her illness from her colleagues which caused her health to suffer and nearly lost her job because of a lack of understanding. She said:

“There is so little knowledge of severe asthma and the debilitating impact it can have on people’s health and working lives. In my previous job it took me a long time to persuade colleagues that I wasn’t pretending to be ill, but I was genuinely sick, in hospital every time I was off. I found the whole process demoralising, especially because I was doing everything I possibly could to be at work.

“My determination not to be seen as ill worked against me as I would often force myself to work when in reality I was really struggling with my asthma. I would worry about being seen as flaky or putting extra pressure on the team if I went off sick or have to go to an appointment. I also used to put my own health at risk by not using my inhaler at work when my symptoms flared up for fear of being judged by those around me and would regularly hold out until the end of the day.

“Asthma nearly cost me my job and that was horrible. I was taken through all the stages of the sickness policy and it was only with union support that I was able to keep my job. I was very lucky to have an understanding manager who was willing to take the time to understand my condition and help me make the relevant adjustments I needed.”

Dr Andy Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma UK and a practising GP, said:

“It’s deeply concerning that people have lost or are worried about losing their job because of their asthma. This research shows just how difficult it can be for people to talk about asthma in the workplace. Fear of judgement, shame and a general lack of understanding all fuel the stigma that can sometimes surround the condition.

“We don’t want asthma to be shrouded in secrecy in the workplace. Juggling a stressful job and a serious long-term condition like asthma can be challenging. Unlike at home, people may have less control at work over things that could potentially trigger a life-threatening asthma attack. The good news is that following simple steps such as having open conversations with your employer and colleagues about asthma and your triggers could make all the difference. To sign-up for more information visit: asthma.org.uk/employers”

 Asthma UK have created a bespoke newsletter that brings together advice for employers across different sectors, ensuring people have advice on how to manage asthma risks to employees in the workplace.

Notes to Editors:

[1] Between June-October 2019, Asthma UK surveyed 12,876 people with asthma through an online survey. Of those who answered this question (11,832), 1,296 answered yes to either or both those fields equating to 10.95% or 1 in 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Of those who answered this question (11,621), 4,488 people said they had an asthma attack at work, equating to 38.6% or a third of

[4] Ibid. Of those who answered this question (11,621), 808 people said they had been disciplined or been given a warning at work because of their asthma equating to 9.4% or 1 in 10.

[5] Ibid. Of those who had chosen to keep their asthma hidden at work (1,390) 400 respondents said they had done so because they were worried about their career prospects equating to 29% or 3 in 10.

[6] Mukherjee, M., Stoddart, A., Gupta, R.P. et al. The epidemiology, healthcare and societal burden and costs of asthma in the UK and its member nations: analyses of standalone and linked national databases. BMC Med 11, 113 (2016).

[7] Gruffydd-Jones, K., Thomas, M., Roman-Rodríguez, M. et al.  Asthma impacts on workplace productivity in employed patients who are symptomatic despite background therapy: a multinational survey.  Dove Press (2019).

[8] Name has been changed