How to Manage COPD while Working: Balancing Your Work Life and Your Health with Chronic Lung Disease
One of the most difficult parts of living with COPD is coming to terms with the ways it can change your life and limit your activities. This is especially true for working adults, who often have to make difficult decisions about how to continue working—and if they should continue working—while managing their COPD.
While the answer to this question varies significantly from person to person, many people with COPD are able to continue working for many years after their COPD diagnosis. However, coping with work and a chronic disease can be a major challenge, and it only gets harder in the later, more serious stages of the disease.
That's why we created this guide all about how to overcome those challenges and maintain a healthy, balanced work life with COPD. In it, you'll learn how to address some of the most common difficulties that people with COPD face in the workplace and how to prioritize your mental and physical well-being while keeping up with the demands of your job.
In the sections below, we cover everything from how to deal with health-related absences and minimize COPD symptoms at work to what kinds of accommodations you can request from your employer to make your job easier to manage. We also discuss how to how to evaluate and make adjustments to your work-life-health balance to make sure that it's working for you.
Whether you're a person with COPD who is currently working or considering working in the future, it's important to know your options and what kinds of difficulties you're likely face. Every person's path will be different, but everyone can benefit from strategies for coping with COPD in the workplace and making adjustments along the way.
Can You Work When You Have COPD?
It's only natural to worry about your ability to continue working and keeping your job after you've been diagnosed with COPD. Certainly, COPD symptoms can interfere with many aspects of daily life, and they can reduce or eliminate your ability to do work activities you could do before.
Of course, COPD symptoms and physical abilities vary significantly from person to person, and so does the ability to work a steady job. For instance, mild COPD symptoms might not affect your everyday life much at all, while very severe COPD symptoms can make it difficult to endure even light activities, like walking up stairs or getting ready for work.
How Does COPD Affect Your Ability to Work?
How much COPD affects your work life depends largely on the severity of your COPD symptoms and the demands of your particular job. It also depends on how, and how quickly, your COPD progresses, as well as what kinds of complications (like COPD exacerbations) you experience along the way.
For example, you might be able to work a physically-demanding job in the early stages of the disease, but it's likely to get much more difficult—and eventually too difficult—to endure those physical tasks as the disease gets worse. If you have a sedentary desk job, however, you might be able to handle the work even with moderate to severe COPD.
According to the CDC, nearly fifty percent of people with COPD reported having some kind of physical activity limitation related to their health, and nearly forty percent said they have serious difficulty walking or climbing up stairs. It's not hard to imagine how such limitations could impair your working ability in general and significantly reduce the types of physical work you can do.
Another problematic COPD symptom for working adults is fatigue, which can sap your energy and make it incredibly difficult to bear the strain of working for hours and hours day after day. This is true even for work that doesn't require any major activity; it doesn't take much to overtax yourself when you're living with chronic disease.
One study on COPD patients in Canada found that 64 percent of participants with COPD reported working at a slower pace than usual and 36 percent reported having to postpone work. A significant percentage also experienced problems with concentration (64%) and decision-making (57%) at work.
COPD can also affect your sleep, your diet, your mental endurance, and other aspects of your life that can, in turn, affect your energy level and your ability to cope with stress. This can make it especially difficult to keep up with the demands of long working hours or of fast-paced jobs.
How Common is it for People with COPD to Work?
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of detailed data about working adults and COPD, or how long COPD patients usually work after diagnosis. However, research does shed some light on a few key ways that COPD affects patients' working lives.
One study, for example, found that about 62% of US adults with COPD between the ages of 55 and 75 were still employed, and concluded that people with COPD “had an elevated risk for leaving work prior to age 65” compared to adults without chronic respiratory conditions. Other studies have found that working ability among people with COPD is strongly associated with airflow limitation and shortness of breath, as patients with more severe breathlessness are less likely to be employed.
One of the most comprehensive analyses of COPD and working ability was conducted by the CDC in 2013 and explored the types of “employment and activity limitations” experienced by adults with COPD. It found that nearly one quarter (24.3%) of adults with COPD in the US report being unable to work, compared to only 5.4% of adults without COPD.
Other studies confirm that people with COPD tend to retire earlier, on average, and are even less likely to be employed than people with other chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. This results in an average lifetime loss of about $7,365 per person from early retirement, and—among adults still working—a loss of about $880 per year due to absences from work.
But even though employment numbers are lower than average among people with COPD, it's important to note the significant number of people with COPD who do have jobs. At least 38 percent of US adults with COPD are able to continue working beyond the age of 55, and about three quarters report that they still have the ability to work (even if they are not currently employed).
Can You Get Fired for Having COPD?
Many people with chronic diseases like COPD worry that their health problems could cause them to get fired from their job. Whether or not this can happen is a complicated questions that depends on a lot of legal definitions and case-by-case determinations.
In general, you can't be fired just for having COPD, especially if your COPD is severe enough to cause you to be disabled. However, your employer might be able to fire you if your COPD symptoms (or another medical condition) makes you unable to do your job.
Who can get fired for what reasons is a tricky issue that depends on a whole web of regulations and legal definitions. If you have questions about whether or not you can be fired for your health condition, or if you believe you've been fired unlawfully, it's best to talk to a lawyer that specializes in wrongful termination.
Should You Work with COPD?
Ultimately, whether or not you continue working is a personal decision that only you and your doctor can make. Whatever you choose to do, it's important to follow your doctor's advice and make sure that your decision doesn't interfere with your ability to take care of your health.
Is Your Current Work-Health Balance Sustainable?
All working adults can benefit from pausing once in awhile to take a good, close look at their work-life balance. This gives you the chance take stock of where you are and where you're going, and to re-evaluate your goals and expectations for your career.
This kind of self-examination is even more important for people with chronic diseases like COPD, who have to balance their working life, their personal life, and their special health needs. On top of that, they have to deal with the strain of chronic health problems that make them even more susceptible to the negative health effects of working, including mental burnout and physical fatigue.
If you are a working adult with COPD, asking yourself some key questions about your work life can help you evaluate whether or not what you're doing right now is working for you. As we go through some of these questions in the following sections, think about what your ideal work-life-health balance might look like, and consider how closely your current balance aligns with the one you'd like to achieve.
Your answers to these questions can also help you identify areas of your life that might need to change in order to establish a healthier equilibrium that's more in line with your needs. Then, in the following sections we'll introduce you to a variety of practical tools and strategies that can help you make those changes, get better support in the workplace, and maintain your ability to work as long as possible.
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Does your work expose you to anything that could be harmful to your lungs?
People with COPD are particularly vulnerable to respiratory irritants, which can worsen COPD symptoms and do additional damage to your lungs. That's why it's important to minimize your exposure to these hazards as much as possible—especially in places like your workplace, where you spend a great deal of time.
Unfortunately, there are many different jobs that expose you to respiratory hazards like dust, heavy air pollution, noxious chemical fumes, and smoke. Some of the more obvious culprits include jobs in fields like construction and manufacturing, but they're far from the only ones; simply working with common cleaning chemicals like ammonia and bleach, for example, can expose you to toxic fumes that are known to both cause COPD and exacerbate COPD symptoms.
Here are some additional questions to help you identify your level of exposure to respiratory hazards at work:
- Do you experience worsened respiratory irritation, coughing, or shortness of breath at work?
- Do you often handle hazardous chemicals (e.g. pesticides, solvents, adhesives, etc.) or cleaning products at work?
- Do you work around vehicles or machinery that release smoke or exhaust fumes?
- Does the air at your workplace smell like smoke or contain visible amounts of smoke, dust, or other airborne substances?
- Does your workplace provide appropriate safety equipment (e.g. dust masks, respirators, or fume hoods) in situations that could exposure to respiratory hazards on the job?
Does your job exacerbate your COPD symptoms?
Effective symptom control is a key part of COPD treatment that can even reduce your risk for serious health complications like COPD exacerbations and rapid lung function decline. That's why it can be dangerous to work a job that triggers your COPD symptoms or makes them more difficult to control from day to day.
This can happen if your work tasks require physical exertion that's beyond what you can handle or makes you feel so exhausted that it saps all your energy for the day. Even if you your job tasks themselves don't cause you any particular trouble, working in an of itself can still cause a great deal of stress and fatigue, both of which can have a particularly detrimental effect on your health if you have COPD.
Here are some additional questions to help you evaluate how your work affects your COPD symptoms:
- Are your COPD symptoms usually worse at work than they are at home?
- Does your job require you to do activities that are more strenuous than your doctor recommends?
- Do you feel significantly more fatigued or breathless on days that you work (including after work) compared to days that you do not work?
- Does work-related fatigue interfere with your ability to exercise or do other activities that are beneficial to your health?
Does your work inhibit your ability to manage your COPD symptoms?
Even if your COPD symptoms aren't a major problem at work, they're bound to affect you on the job from time to time. When they do, it's important that you work in an environment that allows you to do what you need to treat your symptoms on the job.
That means being able to use your rescue inhaler as needed and keep up with other treatments, including using supplemental oxygen and taking your medications on time. You should also be able to slow down and take rests when needed, and take other reasonable steps to minimize your symptoms at work.
Here are some additional questions to help you evaluate your ability to control your COPD symptoms on the job:
- Can you slow down or stop to rest if you feel too breathless or fatigued?
- Can you take the day off if you feel too sick to come in to work?
- Does your work schedule allow you take all of your medications and other COPD treatments on time?
- Do you ever miss medical appointments or have to delay medical treatments because of work?
- Do you forget to take your medicine more often on days that you work?
- For oxygen therapy users: Does your job prevent or discourage you from using your oxygen as needed or as your doctor prescribed?
What can you do to improve your work life?
If you answered any of the above questions unfavorably, then it might be time to make a change. What kind of change that is depends on the nature of the problem, how severely it affects you, and what kinds of options are available to you in your particular job or career.
But now that you have a better idea of what a healthy work-life balance looks like, you can start to explore what you can do to achieve a better balance for yourself. To help you get started, we've compiled a list of effective tools and techniques that people with COPD can use to improve their work lives and get the support they need to continue working sustainably with COPD.
As you read through the tips and techniques in the following sections, think about the problems you've identified in your working life so far and take note of any ideas that resonate with you. Then, take some time to consider how you can adapt those ideas into personalized solutions that can help you overcome the particular challenges you face.
Strategies for Surviving and Thriving at Work With COPD
Know How to Talk to Your Employer About Your COPD
Everyone has the right to keep their health and their medical records private, but there are many situations in which it can be beneficial to talk to your employer about your COPD. In fact, it might even be necessary to discuss your health condition if you need to request special allowances or accommodations because of your COPD.
If you do decide to tell your employer about your condition, it's important to explain your situation in an accurate and compelling way. That means knowing—and being able to present—all the relevant details about your disease, including:
- your disease diagnosis
- your symptoms, including how severe they are, how they affect your life, and how they affect your work
- your treatments, especially those that could impact your work or attendance
- potential accommodations that could help you in the workplace
- anything else that might be relevant to your job or your requests
Educating your employer about your health and the challenges it causes opens up a dialogue in which both you and your employer can work together to resolve your problems and needs. Telling your employer about your struggles might also make your employer more understanding if problems crop up in the future regarding your health condition and how it affects your work.
Remove COPD Triggers from Your Work Space
Many common, everyday substances can cause respiratory irritation, including fragrances, cleaning products, air pollutants, and more. People with COPD tend to be much more sensitive to these irritants than the average person; for some, even the mildest irritants can trigger COPD symptoms and make it harder to breathe.
These symptoms can interfere with your job performance and persist even outside of work, making it generally more difficult to keep your COPD symptoms under control. Frequent exposure to respiratory irritants can even cause additional lung damage over time and increase the frequency of COPD exacerbations.
For all of these reasons and more, respiratory irritants in the workplace can make a job miserable—and potentially even dangerous—for people with COPD. Luckily, it's usually possible to reduce sources of respiratory irritation significantly by making simple, non-disruptive changes to your working environment.
You can start by paying close attention to your COPD symptoms when you're at work and looking for patterns that might help you identify things that make your symptoms worse. As you go about your work, keep an eye (and your nose) out for potential sources of respiratory irritants, such as strong odors, noxious cleaning chemicals, and second-hand smoke.
If you notice that something in particular is bothering you, don't be afraid to speak up, but be ready to offer up reasonable solutions to the problem. If you explain your sensitivities and show consideration for your coworkers' comfort and needs, you shouldn't have too much trouble getting your employer and colleagues on board.
Here are some examples of steps you could take to reduce respiratory irritants in your workplace:
- Ask your employer to enforce policies that limit second-hand smoke in and immediately around the workplace.
- Politely ask your coworkers not to wear or bring heavily-fragranced products to work (e.g. scented lotions, candles, air fresheners, perfumes, etc.).
- Ask your employer to replace hazardous chemical cleaning products (e.g. cleaners containing ammonia and bleach) with safer cleaning products that emit fewer harmful fumes. To learn more about safer cleaning alternatives, check out our guide on Cleaning with COPD.
Ask for Air Quality Improvements at Work
If you work in an office or another indoor environment, the air quality in the building can have a major effect on your COPD. Because you spend so much time at work, it's important to make sure the air in your workplace is clean and healthy to breathe.
Unfortunately, even if you eliminate the obvious COPD triggers in your workplace, there could be other, hidden sources of indoor air pollution, such as mold, radon gas, and even common pest control products. Because these indoor air pollutants are often invisible or difficult to find, it might take some investigation to determine if—and why—your workplace's air quality is poor.
The easiest way to figure this out is to get the air tested by a professional, especially if you're still experiencing lung irritation in the workplace after removing more obvious causes. You might even be able to get a free air quality test in your workplace if you request one from your state's OSHA On-Site Consultation Program.
You could also look into your work building's cleaning and maintenance practices to see if they're doing their due diligence to keep air quality issues at bay. If their current measures aren't satisfactory, you could request that they make improvements or modifications that will make the air in the building safer or more comfortable to breathe.
Potential air quality improvements include:
- Improving the building's ventilation and air filtration system
- Using humidifiers or de-humidifiers to control the amount of moisture in the air
- Implementing measures for damp and mold control
- Testing your workplace for radon gas and (if needed) installing a radon mitigation system
- Reducing or altering the use of noxious chemicals (like pesticides) in and around the building
- Inspecting and maintaining safe emission standards for appliances and machinery that generate pollution (e.g. the building's furnace)
Though many employers are reluctant to make these kinds of changes, it might be worth reminding them that cleaner air and a healthier working environment benefits everyone, not just you. Nobody is immune to the negative effects of poor air quality in the workplace, even if the effect's aren't as obvious or immediate on people with healthy lungs.
Prepare for Workplace Absences
When you have COPD, it's inevitable that you will miss work occasionally for doctor's appointments, exacerbations, out-patient treatments (like pulmonary rehab), and other health-related reasons. As your COPD progresses and your healthcare needs increase, you might need to take even more frequent—and more lengthy—absences from work.
Unfortunately, the ability to take leave from work—and the impact that taking leave can have on your career and finances—varies significantly from person to person. In some workplaces, taking time off work is heavily stigmatized or discouraged, making it difficult for many to take medical leave even when it should be allowed.
Employers tend to be more accommodating, however, when they know about absences ahead of time. That's why you should always let your employer know as early as possible when you know that you'll need to take time off work—except in the case of an unanticipated illness or emergency, of course.
This will ensure your employer has plenty of time to arrange for your absence and ensures that you have enough time to take all the proper steps to request leave. It also gives you a chance to get ahead on your workload or find other ways to smooth over any disruptions your absence might cause.
Here are some ideas for making your absences from work easier for yourself, your coworkers, and your employer: