Managing COPD in the Workplace


Gina Garippo

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If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and are not yet retired, it's natural to wonder how long you may be able to work. You may be concerned that symptoms are already slowing you down or causing you to miss a few days. If so, you are not alone. One international survey found that about 40% of COPD sufferers quit work before retirement age due to the disease. But that doesn't mean it will happen to you. The following steps can help you better manage your condition at work.

Find Your Motivation

When COPD symptoms get you down, it can be easy to quit everyday activities. That includes going to your job. COPD cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be managed. Continuing to work with COPD isn't always easy. But finding your motivation can help.

Experts say that staying in the workforce can be a useful coping strategy when you have COPD. Working offers you a regular routine and can boost your emotional, physical, and financial health.

Assess Your Abilities

Your ability to work can greatly depend on how physically demanding your job is, as well as how severely you are affected by COPD. It can also be influenced by your work environment. For example, you may not be able to work if you are exposed to harmful fumes or other irritants while on the job.

To help assess your ability to work in your current position, talk with your doctor. Ask if he or she has any treatment recommendations to help you stay in your current position. For example, wearing an oxygen tank to help you breathe easier may allow you to better perform your work duties.

Ask for Change

It's important to talk with your employer about your employment concerns and work together to find solutions. Many people with COPD can successfully continue working by adjusting their work environment. Ask your employer for simple changes that can make a big difference. Some ideas include:

  • Easily accessible parking, such as an assigned parking spot close to the building

  • A desk/office near the entrance

  • More frequent breaks

  • If possible, a flexible work schedule or telecommuting option

  • A smoke-free environment

Manage and Prevent Symptoms

Both quitting smoking and taking your medications can significantly help you manage your symptoms. But there are other things you can do at work to make your job easier. For example:

  • Put commonly used items within easy reach to conserve energy.

  • Use a rolling cart to move items around.

  • Practice pursed lip breathing before walking up stairs or performing a strenuous activity. Inhale through your nose for two counts. Then, purse your lips like you are about to whistle and slowly breathe out through your mouth for four counts.

Key Takeaways

  • For people with COPD, working can offer a regular routine and boost emotional, physical, and financial health.

  • Talk with your doctor to help determine your ability to work in your current position.

  • Discuss any employment concerns you have with your employer.

  • Make simple changes to your current work environment so your job is easier.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 25, 2017

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Medical References

  1. COPD Uncovered: An International Survey on the Impact of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD] on a Working Population. M Fletcher et al. BMC Public Health. Vol. 11, pp. 1-13.
  2. The COPD Caregiver Guide: At Work With COPD. Caring Today.
  3. Living with COPD. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
  4. COPD uncovered: an international survey on the impact of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] on a working age population. Fletcher, M BMC Public Health 2011, 11:612
  5. Understanding COPD. COPD Foundation.
  6. Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Respiratory Impairment. Job Accommodation Network.

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