Can COPD Impact Your Employment?

How to live and work with this chronic illness

man with pain at office
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One question you may have after being diagnosed with COPD is "Will I still be able to work?" This is a very valid concern. While having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, can have devastating effects on your personal and social life, it can have an even greater impact on your job.

A cross-sectional multinational study people living with COPD found 80% were unable to maintain their previous lifestyle and 37% reported their income had dropped following the diagnosis.

In addition, one in four felt they could not continue to care for their children or other family members as they previously had, one in five felt they had become a burden to family members and friends and 41% felt they could no longer plan for their future.

Work-loss for employees with COPD is associated with many factors, not just COPD. This is because, for many people, COPD is not their only significant health problem. COPD is associated with many other comorbidities that make the impact of the disease far more severe than just having COPD alone.

Here's a closer look at how COPD may impact your work life and how you can try to steer clear of the pitfalls.

Workplace Accommodations

If you've been diagnosed with COPD and you are still working, the first thing you should do is ask yourself if your job is going to make your condition worse? If the answer to this question is yes, you may want to consider long-term disability.

If, on the other hand, your job will have little impact on your disease and you choose to continue working, talk to your employer as soon as possible about making any necessary, workplace adjustments that will make it easier for you to do your job.

Explain to your employer that making adjustments in the workplace will ultimately mean fewer work days missed as a result of your illness.

Here are just a few accommodations that employers can make that are not overly imposing:

  • Providing an accessible parking space that is close to the door.
  • Moving your workstation closer to the entrance of the building.
  • Allowing you to work from home at least a couple of days a week, if not every day.
  • Providing a smoke-free, dust-free, fume-free environment. This can even mean asking other employees not to wear heavy colognes or perfumes.
  • Providing adequate ventilation.
  • Allowing you a flexible schedule so that you don't miss your doctor appointments or perhaps letting you come in later on certain days.
  • Giving you advanced notification of any construction work or cleaning that will be going on in your particular work area.
  • Allowing you to use a scooter or motorized cart to increase your mobility while in the workplace or to move from one office building to the next during work hours.

Maintaining Productivity

What your employer most likely fears most about your disease is that it will impact your job productivity.

To keep up your end of the bargain, you may also want to consider:

  • Doing everything you can to prevent a COPD exacerbation. An exacerbation can cause you to miss more days of work, or worse yet, land you in the hospital. Frequent handwashing, staying away from crowds and sick people, getting your flu and pneumonia vaccines, etc.
  • Wearing your oxygen at work. Oxygen therapy helps prevent breathlessness, improves your mental alertness and increases your stamina so you can get through your work day without a hitch. Invest in a a pair of Oxyview eyeglasses if you feel uncomfortable wearing your nasal cannula.

Consider Retirement

People with COPD are more likely to accept early retirement than those who do not have COPD. If you are forced to leave your job early, this can negatively impact your pension benefits and have a dramatic affect on your financial well-being, as well as that of your family.

If you are considering early retirement, talk to your health care provider to make sure you are doing all you can to stay in the workplace as long as possible. Perhaps it is only a matter of utilizing oxygen therapy in the workplace, or, trying a different medication that will help reduce your breathlessness.

Once you and your doctor have discussed your options, it is a good idea to speak with a financial planner and your personnel department before making a final decision. Planning for your retirement, even if it's an early one, will ensure that you and your family are well taken care of.


European Lung Foundation/Medical News Today. The Impact Of COPD On Working Aged Populations. Article Date: 26 Sep 2011 - 0:00 PDT.

Kremer, et. al. Employment and disability for work in patients with COPD: a cross-sectional study among Dutch patients. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. Volume 80, Number 1, 78-86. February, 2006.

Steele, Margaret F. The COPD Caregiver Guide: At Work with COPD: Helping make workplace accommodations for your loved one with COPD.

Yelin, et. al. Work life of persons with asthma, rhinitis, and COPD: A study using a national, population-based sample. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2006; 1: 2. Published online 2006 February 2.

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