Working when you have severe asthma

Find out how to manage your severe asthma at work, including what to do if you need lots of time off

In a survey for Asthma UK, two-thirds of people with severe asthma told us the condition affects their working life. They said:

  • “People very often give me ‘that look’ when I say that I can't work because of my asthma. But I am in hospital multiple times each year with at least a fortnight of recovery time needed each time. Who would employ me?”
  • “Most people have no understanding that asthma can interfere with schooling or work, or that some like myself are unable to work at all because of asthma.”
  • “My employers don’t appreciate my condition. People assume it's 'just asthma'.”

Working life can be difficult when you have severe asthma because:

  • You may need lots of time off work and worry about what that means for your job in the future.
  • You might find your employer or colleagues don’t understand why you need time off because of your symptoms, and to go to appointments, because it’s ‘just asthma’.
  • You may worry about having an asthma attack at work.
  • You may feel embarrassed using your asthma inhalers in front of colleagues.
  • You may feel you’ve been discriminated against at work because of your severe asthma.

“The pattern of being in and out of hospital continued for four years – I would be home for three to four weeks after being discharged, but then I’d need to be admitted again for another two weeks because my symptoms had got worse. I had to leave my job as a nursery teacher, which I loved, and moved back in with my parents.” - Nichola Duane, 39

If you can’t work because of your severe asthma, you can find out what benefits you may be entitled to here.

Make your working life easier

When you have severe asthma, there are lots of simple things you can do to make a difference at work.

Manage your severe asthma at work

Looking after your asthma as well as possible will give you the best chance of being able to do your job well.

What you can do

  • Make sure you know the essential steps you need to take to manage severe asthma.
  • Talk to colleagues about how they can help you manage your severe asthma when you’re at work. You don’t have to tell everyone about it, but it might be helpful for one or two co-workers – and the Human Resources (HR) department – to have a copy of your written asthma action plan, and to know where you keep your reliever inhaler, so they know what to do in an emergency. Your employer should have someone qualified in first aid on site, too, so make sure they know you have severe asthma and understand what to do if you have an asthma attack.
  • Speak to your employer about any workplace triggers you’ve noticed and they may be able to help you avoid them. For example, if you sit near a window and pollution coming in from outside triggers your asthma, they can move you to another part of the building where you may be less affected.
  • Make an appointment with HR to ask them what support might be available to help manage your severe asthma on a day-to-day basis, who you need to inform if you need time off and what support you’ll get to manage your return to work after a flare-up.

Talking to colleagues

If you need a lot of time off or you sometimes find it hard to get all your work done, your colleagues and/or your boss may not understand why. Even if your employer and colleagues are understanding, you might feel guilty that you’re a burden or worried that your job isn’t secure.

What you can do

  • You can help the people you work with understand how severe asthma can affect you. Then they’ll know more about what you need and you’ll feel more confident they understand your situation. You may find your employer and colleagues are very supportive – and it could make all the difference to how you feel at work. For some ideas on how to talk to your colleagues, have a look at our page on explaining severe asthma.
  • If it feels right, you can also talk about your feelings – explain that you worry what they may think when you have a lot of time off. This might help start a conversation in which your co-workers can be honest about how your time off affects them. You may find they’re more understanding than you thought they would be.
  • You could talk to your employer and colleagues about the practical details, too. For example, perhaps you could suggest a plan for colleagues to divide up your work when you need time off or are working more slowly because of your symptoms. Or maybe you could suggest working from home sometimes if that makes it easier for you. Having plans in place can help your employer and colleagues feel more confident the work will be done. And it will be a weight off your mind if you know you’ve made a plan for dealing with your work – which will help lower your stress if you do need to have time off.

“People at work have been great. I’m a project manager and I’ve been with the same company for years. My bosses were really reassuring when I first took time off with pneumonia and have been very supportive since my severe asthma diagnosis; letting me work from home when the pollen count is high, for example. Three other people in my team also have asthma so they know what it’s like and know where my medicines are and that they should call my husband straight away if I become unwell.” Joanne Beecroft, 36

Having time off

Legally, you have the right to take time off work for sickness and hospital appointments. But this may not always be paid time off. Even if your employer is supportive, you might feel guilty about needing to take time off for appointments or because your symptoms have got worse.

What you can do

  • Make sure you know what your contract says about taking time off work, and whether you’ll be paid for it. If you’re worried about finances, you can find out more about sick pay you may be entitled to on our having asthma at work page.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to work when you’re not feeling well. Your symptoms may get worse if you don’t look after yourself properly and you might end up needing even more time off if you try to do too much. You could also be putting yourself at risk of having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. It might be helpful to explain this to your employer – tell them that having time off when you first notice your symptoms getting worse can save you having more time off in the future.
  • Keep talking to your employer when you’re off sick. Staying in touch as much as possible can help ease your worries. It can also help your employer understand what to expect, so they can put some plans in place. But remember what’s most important is for you to look after your health. So if keeping in touch feels too difficult, you could ask a family member or friend to update your employer instead.

“If I’m having a bad day with my asthma and I’m off work, my colleagues will SnapChat me or send a WhatsApp message to cheer me up.” Joanne Beecroft, 36

Severe asthma as a disability

Severe asthma counts as a disability. It’s covered by The Equality Act 2010, which protects people from being discriminated against. Even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, having asthma can still mean you may need support or special arrangements in your workplace.

What you can do

  • Talk to your employer about support that might help you. Under The Equality Act, reasonable adjustments your employer might make can include:
  1. allowing time off (for assessment or treatment)
  2. making alterations to the premises – for example, if you have trouble with stairs
  3. changing your duties to ones you can carry out more easily
  4. adjustments to working environments - for example, if your symptoms are triggered by perfume, they could put a ‘no perfume’ policy in place
  5. a phased return to work after illness, perhaps working flexible hours or part-time
  6. moving you to a more suitable role.
  • Be as open as possible. It can feel difficult to explain that your symptoms may get worse and you might need time off for appointments. You might worry that your employer will lose confidence in you, and feel that your job won’t be safe. But remember your employer can’t help you properly unless you tell them how your severe asthma affects you. Making reasonable adjustments will benefit them as well as you, as you’re more likely to be able to do your job well if you have the right support in place.
  • Ask your employer to record disability-related sick leave separately from other sick absences. This means they won’t have to pay sick pay beyond what they normally pay, because your time off is disability related. Allowing more days off for disability-related reasons may be counted as a reasonable adjustment.

Dealing with discrimination

Under the Equality Act, your employer isn’t allowed to pass you over for promotion, dismiss you from your job or not employ you because you have severe asthma. Your employer has to make reasonable adjustments first, and then consider switching you to another role in the organisation if that doesn’t help. In reality, though, this doesn’t always happen and people with severe asthma do experience discrimination at work.

What you can do

If you think you've been discriminated against at work, or you think you might have been turned down for a job or dismissed because of your severe asthma, you can seek legal advice. If you are in a union, your union representative can help. Or contact your local Citizens Advice. Disability Rights UK can also tell you about your rights.

Last updated November 2016

Next review due November 2019