I Hide My Life-Threatening Asthma At Work Because I'm Afraid It'll Cost Me My Career

Like so many with chronic conditions, juggling my nursing job and my severe asthma feels like a losing battle, writes Sarah.
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I take great pride in my job.

Working as an NHS nurse, there’s never a dull moment. Every day the ward throws up new challenges, each requiring buckets of compassion, hard work and a thick skin. The toughest challenge I face, however, is living in constant fear of losing a job that I love because of something I can do nothing about.

I have severe asthma, the most serious and life-threatening form of the condition, which affects around 200,000 people in the UK, putting many in a never-ending cycle of emergency trips to hospital. Over the years I have missed precious moments like Christmases, birthdays, New Years and holidays because I’ve been in hospital, rigged up to dozens of tubes to help me breathe.

Juggling a chronic condition, a demanding job as a nurse and trying to dodge the minefield of asthma triggers on the ward really tests your mettle. Strong cleaning products, cold and flu viruses and stress can all cause my asthma symptoms to flare up or even trigger a life-threatening asthma attack.

“At my worst I can barely walk to the local corner shop... but I often forced myself to work.”

A couple of years ago, asthma nearly cost me my job. Six months in, I was being hospitalised every 6-8 weeks because of asthma attacks. I think my determination not to be seen as ill worked against me. At my worst I can barely walk to the local corner shop down the road to pick up some milk or the pharmacy to collect my prescription, but I often forced myself to work when in reality I’m struggling to put on a brave face. I worried about being seen as flaky and was afraid of putting extra pressure on the team if I went off sick. It’s also no secret that the NHS is under a huge amount of strain. We’re so constantly short-staffed, anyone off sick has a big impact on the team.

That concern means I used to put my own health at risk by not using my inhaler at work. The fear of being judged by those around me made me hold out sometimes until the end of the day. Research shows I’m not the only one; feeling guilt, shame and embarrassment for using inhalers at work is widespread.

The frequency of my hospital admissions and appointments caused a couple of raised eyebrows, especially amongst management, who weren’t the most sympathetic towards my situation. They questioned whether I was really that ill and said to me that “asthma doesn’t make people this sick.” You’d think hospital staff of all people would understand. Yet no-one believed that I was genuinely sick.

It was only with union support that I was able to keep my job. I really hated involving the union, worried that escalating things would make things worse. But thankfully I am now working in a job where I have an incredible manager who is willing to take the time to understand my condition and help me make the adjustments I need. I don’t do as much hands-on patient care, which has helped massively, and if I’m having a difficult day with my symptoms I take more time working at the desk. Now, I even feel comfortable having open and frank discussions with my manager about how I’m managing my illness.

The shocking truth is stories like mine prove asthma is still so misunderstood. People are shocked when I tell them that three people every day lose their lives because of the condition.

While my job situation has improved, my health is still an ongoing battle. I still have ‘off days’ – in the last two years I have been admitted to hospital 12 times – but having open conversations with my manager about my condition and how it impacts my life and triggers has made the world of difference.

“While my job situation has improved, my health is still an ongoing battle...”

Asthma UK estimate one in nine adults with asthma say they have lost their job or were worried about losing their job because of their asthma. More than a third of respondents have had an asthma attack at work, and one in ten had been disciplined or been given a warning at work because of their asthma. That means there are lots more people, just like me, who don’t tell their bosses about their asthma. To us, doing so runs the risk of impacting our career prospects. I still worry about my future.

But it’s important to know it’s not all doom and gloom. Some organisations are doing great work to support people with chronic illnesses like mine. Even something as simple things like having a go-to trusted colleague who knows about your condition and what things trigger your symptoms can feel like a huge weight off your shoulders.

With the right understanding and support there is no reason why any of the millions of us living with these conditions can’t have a fulfilling job where we can contribute at the same level and, more importantly, are seen as equal to our peers.

Sarah is a NHS nurse, writing under a pseudonym. Asthma UK have created a bespoke newsletter that brings together advice for employers across different sectors, ensuring people have advice on how to manage asthma risks to employees in the workplace. For more information, visit: asthma.org.uk/employers

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