Having asthma at work

Most people with asthma can do the jobs they want to do. But for some, asthma can be an issue at work.

Whether you’re scared of having an asthma attack in front of colleagues, or worried about sick leave, find out how you can feel more in charge of asthma at work, and what to do if you’re treated unfairly. 

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Having an asthma attack at work

People with asthma tell us they worry about having asthma symptoms or an asthma attack at work.

They feel embarrassed using their reliever inhaler in front of people they work with. Or worried about putting people they work with under pressure if they have an asthma attack.

Here are 5 simple tips to help you feel more confident that your asthma’s not going to flare up at work. And help you feel more in control if it does.

  1. Keep a copy of your action plan at work so colleagues can help if you get symptoms. It’s handy to have a copy on your phone too, so it's quick and easy to show people what to do if you have an asthma attack. Download one here and take it to your GP or asthma nurse to help you fill it in.
  2. Get to know first aiders at work, and talk through how they can help if you have an asthma attack. It can feel reassuring to know there are people around who are there to help you.
  3. Stick to your preventer routine to keep down the inflammation in your airways. Taking your preventer every day means you’re less likely to react to any triggers at work.
  4. Always have your reliever inhaler with you so you can quickly deal with symptoms if you get them. Why not get a spare inhaler for work, and tell colleagues where you keep it? You could even give team mates a quick ‘show and tell’ – show them how you use your inhaler and tell them how it helps stop symptoms.
  5. Be open with colleagues about your asthma triggers. This can feel awkward if it’s someone’s perfume or aftershave that’s setting off symptoms. Or if someone next to you is full of cold. But it’s better that they know before your symptoms get worse. If you can’t face talking to them directly, ask your manager to help. 

Time off sick – common concerns

If your asthma symptoms have flared up, or you’re recovering from an asthma attack, you may  need time off for your asthma.

Here, our respiratory nurse specialist Caroline answers your common concerns. 

I feel guilty being off sick with my asthma

“Have a chat with your manager about your asthma,” says Caroline. “If you need time off for asthma appointments, or because you’ve had an asthma attack, you may find your manager is more understanding because you’ve talked it through with them already.

“Being open with colleagues might help too. Tell them how your asthma affects you and show them your action plan, so they know what you need to do to manage it.

“Don’t forget the Asthma UK Helpline. We can give you personalised advice on how you can stay on top of symptoms and help you avoid too many days off because of your asthma.” 

I’m worried I need too long to recover after an asthma attack

“It can take a while to recover from an asthma attack. It’s important to allow yourself the rest and recovery time you need.

“Going back to work before you’re ready could set you back and mean more time off. You could end up needing more medicines or having another asthma attack. Most employers would prefer you to come back when you’re well, rather than have you off sick again because you hadn’t properly recovered.

“It could take the pressure off you a bit if you get a note from your doctor. You need this if you’re off longer than seven days in a row. It can confirm to your employer that you’re still unfit for work.”

I want to go back, but I can’t face a full working week

“If you can’t face a full week, you’re probably not ready yet to go back to work. Allow yourself a bit more time to recover,” says Caroline.  

“But if you really want to get back to work, why not ask if you can start with a few days a week, or work some days at home if you can, until you feel stronger. Your doctor may be able to help you by giving you a note recommending adjustments in the hours you work or the work activities you do.

“This means you can get back to work sooner, but in a way that still gives you more recovery time.”

I’m worried I’m going to lose my job because of long-term sickness with my asthma

“It’s really hard being off sick for a long time, especially if you’re worried about losing your job. This can be a concern, especially for people with severe asthma at work.

“If you’re finding it hard to get on top of your symptoms, the best thing you can do is make an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse, so you have the support you need to feel in control of your asthma.

“They can look at the medicines you’re taking, and your inhaler technique, and update your asthma action plan.

“And, if you’ve been given some add-on treatments but they don’t seem to be helping you, your GP may refer you to specialist care to do further tests.

“In the meantime, try talking openly with your employer about your asthma, and when you think you’ll be well enough to return to work. They might be able to help you come back to work by offering flexible or part-time working at first.

“If you're told you’re going to be dismissed because of sickness, and you feel this is unfair, you can take your case to an employment tribunal.”

I’m worried that work is making my asthma worse

“Try to identify possible triggers at work. Are you stressed more at work? Do colleagues wear perfume or aftershave that affects you? Are you exposed to pollution or pollen from outside?

“Whatever the trigger, it’s worth talking to your manager about it. Any workplace must try to make what are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’ to protect you from triggers.

“If it’s possible in the kind of work you do, you could also talk to them about working from home sometimes if there are colds and viruses going around.

“Find out more about occupational asthma if your asthma started for the first time because of where you work. And call the Helpline for more advice about managing your asthma well, so that you’re less likely to react to triggers you come across.”

I’m worried about using up my sick pay and not having enough money to live

“The first thing to do is get help for your asthma. Make an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse so you can have an asthma review. And do call our Helpline for more advice on what you can do to lower your risk of symptoms and an asthma attack.”

“At the same time, talk to someone at work so you’re clear on what their policy is around sick pay, how much is paid and for how long. You should be able to get Statutory Sick Pay paid by your employer for 28 weeks, so long as you have a sick note. And even if you’re off longer than this, you can apply for Employment and Support Allowance.

“Also, if you live in England, find out about support you can get with paying for prescriptions.

I need time off because of my child’s asthma

“If you’re a parent of a child with asthma you may need time off when your child has symptoms.

“Ask your employer about their policy around time off for dependants.”

Treated unfairly at work because of asthma

Usually, only severe asthma is considered as a disability covered by the Equality Act.

But it’s still worth getting some support and advice if you think you've been treated unfairly or differently at work because of your asthma.

Why not try:

  • talking the problem through with your HR (Human Resources) department
  • getting advice from a staff representative if you have one. They may be able to give you some support about how to approach the issue, or they can come to meetings with you.
  • getting help from your union representative, if you’re in a workplace union.
  • Contacting your local Citizens Advice.

If you think you’ve been unfairly treated or dismissed, you can take your case to an employment tribunal. Make sure you do this within three months of the issue happening.

Choosing jobs when you have asthma

Asthma doesn’t need to get in the way of choosing the job you want to do. But there are some jobs which may be harder to get, depending on how bad your asthma is, such as jobs in the armed forces, or the fire brigade.

Having asthma won’t automatically exclude you from these roles, but you’ll need to prove you’re fit for duty with assessments and medical checks.

Your asthma may be more of a problem in jobs where you’re exposed to workplace asthma triggers like flour dust or chemicals. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) publishes a list of the best known substances, which is updated regularly.

Find out more

If you’re new to asthma and you think your symptoms have started because of where you work, find out more about occupational asthma.

You can also find out more about working with severe asthma and your rights if you feel like you haven’t been treated fairly at work because of your health.

 

Last updated November 2020

Next review due November 2023