COPD and Work: 7 Ways Your Employer Can Help You Keep Your Job

If you’re under 65 and one of the 14 million people in America diagnosed with COPD, chances are you’re still in the workforce. Although going to work every day has many benefits, it can also be extremely challenging for people with lung disease, especially when they require supplemental oxygen during work hours.

Employees with COPD are not the only people on the job faced with workplace challenges; employers are also affected. Because COPD can have a dramatic impact on workplace productivity1, employers often fear that your lung disease will affect how you do your job. Results from a study of people working with COPD revealed that 37% of the 2,426 people surveyed reported a significant drop in their income after being diagnosed.2

Workplace Productivity: A Two-Way Street

Maintaining productivity on the job does not stop with the employee. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers may have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified applicants or employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.3 What constitutes a disability under the ADA? In general, a person is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities – this includes work.

How can your employer help you meet the productivity requirements of your job and remain in the workforce? Implementing any of the following ideas is a great place to start:

  1. Acquiring special equipment or medical devices – People with COPD often experience difficulty performing tasks that require even moderate amounts of physical activity; this includes walking long distances, lifting heavy boxes or standing for long periods of time. Employers should consider providing a scooter or motorized cart to employees who don’t already use a mobility aid. Reducing the amount of time on the job spent lifting or walking may also be a reasonable alternative to employees who can’t tolerate excessive physical activity.
  2. Restructuring your job – Job restructuring occurs when an employer changes the nature and functions of an employee’s current job. For example, if your position requires an excessive amount of movement in and around the office, your employer may modify your job duties by assigning duties that you can perform from your personal workspace. In general, reasonable accommodation allows you to perform less critical job duties; it does not mean a major overhaul of your position.
  3. Providing you with part-time or modified work hours – People with COPD often tire easily and lack sufficient energy to work for extended periods of time. If, for example, an 8 hour day, 3 days a week is too difficult for you, ask your employer to consider shortening the work day and extending the work week.
  4. Reassigning you to another vacant position – If it becomes impossible for you to perform the essential duties of your job and you are on good terms with your employer, you may want to consider asking her to reassign you to another position. If there are no positions open for a job at your current pay level, you may have to consider taking a less-paying job in order to remain in the workforce.
  5. Adjusting workplace policies to suit your needs – Many people with COPD have difficulty maintaining regular attendance or sticking to a regular work schedule. If this sounds like you, a modification of the attendance policy, more frequent rest periods or providing you with a reasonable amount of additional unpaid leave may help you maintain – even increase – your productivity.
  6. Making your workplace easily accessible and usable – Fatigue and weakness are common symptoms of COPD. Making the workplace easily accessible to employees who are mobility-challenged may just help relieve your symptoms, at least while on the job. This can be achieved by providing wheelchair ramps (if you’re wheelchair-bound) and a parking space closer to the entrance, or moving your workstation to an area closer to the equipment and rooms you use most frequently, including the restroom.
  7. Maintaining worksite air quality – COPD symptoms are often aggravated by environmental triggers, such as dust, chemicals and gases. Employers who take measures to improve indoor air quality in the workplace shouldn’t be surprised when workplace productivity improves for every employee, not just the employees with respiratory ailments. How can employers maintain – even improve – indoor air quality? Tips include regularly maintaining heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, installing air purification systems throughout the entire building or in individual workstations, reducing workplace pollutants, and providing personal protective equipment, including masks, to employees who work in at-risk areas.

Asking for Reasonable Accommodations

If you want, or need, to keep working but find yourself struggling on the job, it may be time to ask your employer for reasonable accommodations. Remember, the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who have a disability and requires them to provide reasonable accommodations allowing people with disabilities to continue to work. But asking for changes in the workplace is often intimidating and requires some savvy negotiation skills on your part, and compromise on the part of your employer.

When you’re ready to approach your employer, it’s a good idea to put your request in writing. Be sure to include:

  • The nature of your disability
  • How your disability affects your job, and
  • How reasonable accommodations will allow you to do your job more efficiently

Offer your employer several accommodation suggestions that you believe may work for both of you. Don’t expect your employer to give you an answer immediately; she may need some time to ponder your request. Remind your employer that you’re open to suggestions. Once your employer thinks about it, she may come up with a better solution for both of you.4

For more information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1 The National Business Coalition on Health. COPD: A Major Driver of Avoidable Health Care Costs. September, 2012.
2 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.
3 The United States Department of Labor. Disability Resources: Employers Responsibilities.
4 U.S. Equal  Employment Opportunity Commision. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Americans with Disabilities Act: Questions and Answers. Updated Oct. 9, 2008.

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