Finding Work-Life Balance With Severe Asthma

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Having severe asthma can be a challenge. And working full-time with severe asthma can be a serious challenge! How do you cope with a balance between work and life when struggling with your health is taking up so much of your precious energy?

There are ways you can make work-life balance a good bit better. Making a plan for handling your asthma at work can help you keep up at your job while also maintaining your health.

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What are the challenges of severe asthma?

People with severe asthma struggle with repeated trips to the emergency room, absences from work, the burden of unpleasant side effects from medication, and having to make changes to their daily lives to minimize exacerbations (times when their symptoms become worse).

Many people don’t understand that asthma can be severe enough to interfere with school or work, which can present additional challenges for someone living with severe asthma.

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Why Is working difficult with severe asthma?

It can be hard to work with severe asthma. Depending on how well-controlled your asthma is, you may need a lot of time off work. Employers or colleagues may not understand that asthma can be severe enough to require time off.

You may feel anxious about using your inhaler in front of colleagues, or worry that you’ll have an asthma attack at work.

For some people, exposure to triggers in their workplace, like synthetic fragrances or tobacco smoke on clothing, can make their asthma symptoms worse.

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Manage your severe asthma at work

While you don’t have to disclose your illness to everyone you work with, your Human Resources department and one or two coworkers should have copies of your written asthma action plan, says Asthma UK.

If you are exposed to asthma triggers in the workplace, talk to your employer to see if adjustments can be made so that you’re not exposed.

Talk to Human Resources and learn what support they can offer on a daily basis.

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Make a plan for when your severe asthma flares

One of the hardest things about severe asthma is its episodic nature. It tends to flare up at times, when symptoms are bad and you may need to stay home, and calm down—you’ll have times when things mostly feel fine and you’re able to work as usual.

Dia SWS at Asthma.net, who has severe asthma, says that they have found a plan to be essential for managing their asthma at work. Know on a bad day whether you’ll work from home or call in sick, and how your work will get accomplished.

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Should you tell your employer about your severe asthma?

People often don’t disclose their illness to employers because they are afraid of discrimination. But it’s impossible to get accommodations and assistance without letting your employer know what is going on. Be honest with your supervisor, writes Lesley Alderman in the New York Times. If you bring value to your employer, they will often be willing to work with you.

However, you may not wish to tell everyone you work with about your condition. It’s a very personal decision.

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Is your severe asthma a disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires your employer to make reasonable accommodations to your work environment or job if you have a disability. The ADA defines this as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Even if your asthma is controlled by medications or episodic, it may still be a disability under the law.

If your asthma is severe enough to be a disability, you are entitled to ask for your employer to make accommodations.

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Ask for accommodations

Accommodations your employer makes must be reasonable. For example, if your asthma is triggered by scents, the employer could put in a “no fragrances” policy. They could allow you extra time off for treatment or recovery. And they could allow you a slower return to work after illness—perhaps a part-time schedule for a few weeks or working from home, suggests Asthma UK.

You can contact the Job Accommodation Network, provided by the federal Department of Labor, to learn more about accommodations.

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Taking time off from work

Time off from work can be very helpful, whether paid or unpaid. Knowing your employer’s policies when it comes to time off is very important, says Asthma UK.

They also stress the importance of not putting pressure on yourself to work when you’re ill. If you’re sick and don’t rest, you may end up making your asthma worse or even put yourself at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack. Be proactive about taking time off when you first notice a worsening of symptoms.

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Making a career/health strategy that works for you

Ultimately, learning to manage your work-life balance with severe asthma is a very personal and individual path. Dia SWS suggests creating a career/health strategy. Ask yourself: where do you want your career to go? Where do you want your health to go? What are your goals for each? Identify your priorities for both areas of your life. Then, make a plan that will help you achieve those goals.

Once you know what success in career and health looks like for you, you can put your plan into action.