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?
|Image from Coquet Adrian|
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:
- Discuss the possibility that you might need to take extended medical leave with your coworkers and help them prepare for the potential transition.
- Come up with an plan to help the workflow continue more smoothly in your absence: e.g. write down detailed instructions for your coworkers to follow when you're gone, or devise an efficient system for handing off tasks and information before you leave).
- Consider giving coworkers who are affected by your absences a chance to weigh in and make suggestions about how you could make your absences easier on them.
- Ask for help if you have any questions or doubts about the correct way to request leave from work; it's better to catch problems early than it is to fix mistakes later on.
Ask Your Employer to Make Accommodations
With a chronic disease like COPD, there's only so much you can do to overcome disease-related physical limitations on your own. Sometimes, you need a little extra help to do your job, and that's when you should consider asking your employer for accommodations.
You might have heard the term “reasonable accommodation” before; this is a legal term that applies specifically to people with disabilities under the American Disabilities Act. We'll discuss this and how it applies to people with COPD more a bit later in this guide.
However, whether or not you can make a legal demand for a reasonable accommodation, it's still okay to ask your employer to make accommodations that you believe would help you do your job. Many workplaces are happy to offer support and make alternative arrangements for people with chronic health conditions, even if they aren't technically covered under the ADA.
Examples of COPD accommodations that might be reasonable to request at work:
- The removal of workplace health hazards like air pollutants and smoke.
- Reduced or altered work hours.
- A more flexible work schedule that allows you to take time off more easily for healthcare appointments and when you feel sick.
- Permission to stop and rest whenever you feel breathless or need to get other COPD symptoms (e.g. coughing) under control.
- Permission to work from home, whether it's part of the time, all of the time, or on days when your symptoms are worse than usual.
- Changing your work assignment or adjusting your job responsibilities to reduce the amount of time you spend doing difficult or strenuous tasks.
- A medical leave agreement that allows you to take extended absences or extra days off work.
- Extra safety precautions to protect you from getting sick at work, such as a socially-distanced work station or the ability to work from home.
- Switching to a different job or set of work responsibilities that you are still qualified for.
Like with any negotiation, you're more likely to get what you want if you can clearly articulate exactly what you need and why. Don't just present your problems; go into the meeting prepared to present your own ideas and suggest potential solutions.
Your employer is more likely to negotiate if you show that you've done your research and put thought into the effects that your request might have on you, your coworkers, and the workplace as a whole. You should also be ready to make reasonable compromises if necessary without backing down on the things that are most important for your health.
Optimize Oxygen Therapy for Work
Having to use supplemental oxygen at home can be tricky enough, but the logistics can get even trickier when you have to use oxygen at work. It can be unwieldy, distracting, and frustrating to manage oxygen therapy in the workplace, not to mention the safety issues that it can bring.
Fortunately, many people are able to work successfully with oxygen, and there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the burden of using oxygen on the job. It all comes down to having the right equipment and having a strategy for managing the specific difficulties that come up.
For example, many people who use oxygen find that lugging their oxygen supplies to and from work is a major challenge due to the weight, volume, and unwieldiness of the equipment. One possible remedy to this problem is to get better oxygen carrying equipment, such as a bag, backpack, or rolling cart that you find easy to transport and pack your equipment in.
You could also replace heavy equipment like large oxygen tanks with lighter alternatives so you don't have as much weight to carry around with you at work. These alternatives include mini oxygen tanks and portable oxygen concentrators, which are small battery-powered machines that can purify oxygen straight from the air.
|A small, portable oxygen concentrator with comfortable carrying equipment.|
If you have a lot of trouble loading and unloading your equipment from your car, you could try to enlist the help of friends, family, or coworkers to help you out. If you're worried that others will hesitate or feel burdened by your request, you can always offer to do your helpers a small favor in return.
There are also many small, simple ways you could adjust your routine to make oxygen therapy a little bit less of a hindrance to your workday. For example, you could set an alarm to remind you to pack up your oxygen equipment before work, or consider arriving at work a little earlier than necessary so you have some extra time to set up your oxygen equipment and get yourself settled in.
It can also help to keep a second set of supplies—such as a nasal cannula, humidifier bottle, and comfort equipment (like ear padding)—either at your workplace or stashed inside your car. That way, you'll always have a spare when you need it and you won't have to worry about damaged or lost equipment disrupting your work day.
Know Your Rights in the Workplace
Everyone should know their basic rights as an employee, but it's critical for those with chronic medical conditions like COPD. Workplace disputes regarding things like employee medical leave, medical privacy, and other health-related issues are fairly common; if you ever find yourself in such a situation, you'll need to how to advocate for yourself and your rights.
In order to do this, however, you need to know your way around local and federal regulations that describe and protect employee rights. This includes, for example, laws regarding medical leave, worker's compensation, COVID protections, and workers with disabilities (we'll discuss the rights of disabled employees in more detail in another section below).
Even if you're not affected by these policies right now, you should still be familiar with them in case they apply to you in the future. After all, you never know when you'll need to defend yourself against an unfriendly employer who decides to deny you medical leave or retaliate against you because of your medical condition.
Here are some helpful resources that can help you learn more about your rights as a US employee:
- An introduction to major US laws concerning disability rights and discrimination based on health (including tips for what to do if you believe your employer has violated one of these laws).
- Guidance on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows employees who work for covered employers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for specified medical reasons.
- A detailed breakdown of the employee paid leave protections in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and answers to Frequently Asked Questions regarding the FFCRA.
Know Your Responsibilities in the Workplace
Just as it's important to know your employee rights, it's also important to know your responsibilities as an employee, both according to the law and according to your employment contract. The more carefully you adhere to established law and workplace policies, the more likely you are to get what you need and want on the job—something that's especially important for workers with chronic health conditions like COPD.
This is especially true whenever you're involved with any kind of formal workplace request, dispute, or negotiation, including minor things like requesting time off work. In these cases, not knowing (or not following) the relevant procedures could invalidate your position or result in outright rejection of any claims or requests you make.
In some cases, even simple administrative mistakes—like missing a deadline or failing to submit the correct kind of documentation—can have devastating consequences, such as losing your healthcare benefits during extended medical leave.
If you ever have questions about your employer's administrative procedures or find yourself unsure of what to do, make sure you go the appropriate person in the chain of command (e.g. your supervisor or HR department) for help. Otherwise, well-meaning but misinformed coworkers could lead you astray with bad advice or incorrect instructions.
You should also be careful to create a paper trail for all important conversations and exchanges you have with your employer. You should always put any requests you make in writing, for example, and use email correspondence for questions, clarifications, and other official communications.
If anything ever gets lost or goes wrong, these records will show your employer exactly what you've been told as well as what you have said and done. This can be invaluable proof in your favor if your conduct ever comes into question, or if you ever need to confront your employer—or take legal action—over something that happened on their end.
Know Your Employment Rights Under the ADA
If you have COPD symptoms that significantly affect your daily activities, you might qualify as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you do, this gives you to the right to certain accommodations and protections that can help you stay employed in spite of obstacles caused by your COPD.
But even if you don't qualify as a person with a disability right now, it's still a good idea to know your way around the ADA in case you qualify in the future. We'll cover the basics in the following sections, including what kinds of workplace accommodations the ADA requires employers to provide.
Are People with COPD Covered by the ADA?
The simple answer to this questions is that some people with COPD qualify as having a disability, while some people with COPD do not. That's because who qualifies “person with a disability” under the law depends not on your disease diagnosis, but on how severe of an impact your health condition has on your life.
According to the ADA, what counts as a disability can only determined on a case-by-basis according to their criteria, which define a disability as: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This definition includes many people with moderate to severe COPD whose symptoms significantly impair their ability to walk, breathe, and do normal household tasks.
What Can the ADA Do for You as an Employee?
The employment rights offered by the ADA fall into two main categories:
- Protection from discrimination (on the basis of having a disability) in all types of employment activities, including: recruitment, hiring, firing, training, job assignments, benefits, pay, promotions, lay-offs, and leave from work.
- The right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
Keep in mind that an employer can still “discriminate” on the basis of your qualifications and your ability to your job. However, if you are qualified and able, an employer cannot use your disability as a basis for discriminating against you in any way.
Here are some more specific examples of things that employers are and are not allowed to do according to the ADA:
- An employer cannot make an employee cover the cost associated with providing a reasonable accommodation (this includes indirect ways of making you pay, such as lowering your salary, benefits, or other forms of compensation).
- Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for all of the services, programs, and facilities the employers provides to employees, including non-work facilities like break rooms, cafeterias, and employer-provided transportation.
- Employers cannot force a person with a disability to undergo medical tests or examinations unless it is required for all employees regardless of disability.
- Employers cannot discriminate against you for having a relationship with or associating with a person with a disability (e.g. an employer cannot refuse to hire you because you are married to a person with a disability).
How Can You Get ADA Protections?
|Image from Jehmsei|
If meet ADA criteria, you are automatically protected by the ADA; that means you don't need to do anything special to qualify for the rights and benefits it grants. In practice, however, you often need to be proactive to get those benefits; for example, if you need workplace accommodations, the law says that it is your responsibility to request the accommodations you need.
Because of this, getting ADA accommodations in the workplace is not always an easy or automatic process, and some workplaces make it more difficult than others. In order to navigate the system successfully and get what you need, it's important to understand what your rights, your responsibilities, and your employer's responsibilities are according to the law.
What is a “Reasonable” Accommodation?
The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities, but only if:
- it doesn't cause “undue hardship” to the employer
- you are qualified and able to perform the essential functions and duties that are essential to your job (with or without reasonable accommodation).
Unfortunately, it's difficult to say exactly what counts as an “undue hardship” or a “reasonable accommodation” because it depends on so many factors, including your job description, the nature of your disability, the characteristics of your workplace, and your specific needs. In general, requesting a small change or adjustment to help you do your job better counts as a reasonable accommodation as long as it is is not very difficult (e.g. too pricey, too disruptive, etc.) for your employer to do.
Here are some general categories of workplace accommodations that are often considered “reasonable” under the ADA (though this can only be accurately determined on a case-by-case basis):
- The ability to use adaptive equipment (e.g. a walker, a motorized scooter, etc.) to get around at work.
- A modified work schedule (e.g. reducing your hours to part time or getting time off for healthcare appointments).
- Reassignment to a different available job position.
- Making changes to the workplace or work equipment to accommodate an employee with a disability.
- Providing interpreters, readers, and alternative materials (e.g. informational documents, training materials, etc.) to make them more accessible to employees with disabilities.
You can find more information on reasonable accommodations on the ADA National Network's website, which also has a large database of frequently asked questions that can help you better understand how the ADA applies to specific situations.
Plan for the Future
An unfortunate fact of living with COPD is that the symptoms inevitably get worse over time. There may be some ways to slow down how quickly this happens, but there is no way to fully stop the disease from progressing and causing continual lung function decline.
This doesn't mean that you need to quit your job now, or even anytime soon; many people are able to maintain their previous lifestyle for many years after being diagnosed with COPD. However, this is something that's important to plan for as you look to the future, including your long-term plans for your career.
Even if you don't currently need any special support or workplace accommodations, it's still important consider what your needs might be in the future, when your COPD symptoms are worse than they are right now. Planning for this now will make the transition much smoother when the time comes to begin making making changes to your work routine.
If continuing to work for as long as possible is your goal, planning ahead will also give you more time to come up with creative solutions—like job modifications and career changes—that could allow you keep working as your health needs and physical abilities change. For example, you could work toward a job title or certification that allows your more flexibility or is less physically demanding than the job you currently have.
You might also want to look into employment assistance programs such as Ticket to Work, a personalized employment assistance program for people receiving Social Security disability benefits. This program offers all kinds of support for people with disabilities who want to continue working, including job training, job searching, and continued assistance during employment.
Here are some additional questions to ask yourself when planning for the future of your career with COPD:
- Can you think of any accommodations that could help you do your job better if your COPD symptoms were worse? Which ones might be reasonable (and possible) to implement in your workplace?
- Who can you go to at work to discuss things like medical leave or disability accommodations?
- Do you get enough paid time off to cover extended medical leave if you need to take it in the future? If not, do you have any other way to cover the cost of unpaid absences?
- Are there other jobs or positions you could take that would be more suitable for your symptoms if you eventually become unable to do your current job?
- What kinds of disability benefits would you have access to if you needed to stop working? What would you need to do in order to qualify or apply for those benefits?
It's not always easy to maintain a productive work life while living with a chronic disease, but having COPD doesn't have to mean the end of your working years. Though it can be a difficult balancing act, we've discussed plenty of tools and techniques throughout this guide that can help you overcome job-related COPD obstacles and take excellent care of your health while working.
The key to success is setting realistic expectations for your work life and preparing a set of good strategies you can use when things get tough. Of course, it's also important to recognize when your work is affecting your well-being and to be able to step back from your work responsibilities if they become too much to handle.
With the tips and tricks in this guide at your disposal, you should be much better equipped to handle common COPD-related workplace challenges while continuing to prioritize your physical and mental health. We hope this information can help you (or your loved ones with COPD) get the most out of your career and make well-informed decisions for your future.