COPD and Your Job

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on June 27, 2022
4 min read

Holding a job when you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, can be tough. Common COPD symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness can present challenges, whether you walk between meetings or operate heavy equipment.

If you deal with COPD flare-ups often, you can take action to protect your free breathing at work, and encourage your boss and co-workers to help you stay comfortable and productive.

If your job involves a lot of physical activity, ask your pulmonologist or other doctor if you’ll be able to keep it, and what changes you might need to make. Then you can work on removing or managing conditions that can make breathing harder. Try these tips:

  • Wash your hands often and avoid crowds at work, to reduce the risk of infections and COPD flare-ups. Make sure you keep up with your vaccinations, too.
  • Work on keeping a good, upright posture. If you slouch or hunch over your desk all day, your rib cage can’t expand as much to ease breathing. Consider asking your employer to provide a workstation that lets you switch from sitting to standing.
  • Schedule breaks between meetings, as conversation can be tiring for someone with COPD.
  • Try to plan physically hard activities for times in the day when you have more energy and to break large jobs into smaller, manageable chunks.
  • Place commonly used items within easy reach, to save your energy.
  • Structure time in your day for aerobic exercise, like a walk around the block or an exercise class.
  • Try pursed lip or diaphragmatic breathing techniques to help restore your energy. These techniques are taught in pulmonary rehabilitation, or your doctor can teach you how.
  • Bring an air purifier and dehumidifier to your workspace. You could look into whether your employer would pay for them.
  • Ask people who work near you not to wear perfumes or scented lotions at work, as these can irritate your lungs if you have COPD.

Assuming you feel well enough to do your job, you should talk with your employer as soon as possible about accommodations that help you be productive. What’s more, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you have a legal right to ask for reasonable accommodations from a business employing 15 or more people, if COPD “substantially limits” your ability to do your work in your current setting.

Ask your supervisor if you may:

  • Work from home a couple of days a week, or permanently, if needed
  • Have a flexible schedule when you have doctor appointments
  • Work in a well-ventilated environment free from dust, smoke, and fumes
  • Use a workstation near the building door and a parking spot near the entrance
  • Get advance word of any dust-generating activities like construction or cleaning

If your job is physically hard, you also may want to ask your boss to modify your tasks or switch you to a less physical job. Or if COPD makes it hard to have a lot of client conversations, that may prompt you to request a change.

Studies show that people with COPD need to take more time off work than average employees. That’s no surprise. If you have already used your personal time off and sick leave for the year and COPD symptoms make it too hard to work, even at home, you still have options. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you can request up to 12 weeks a year of leave from a business that employs 50 or more people, if you have worked there for a year.

Your time on FMLA leave is unpaid, but you cannot be fired or denied your old job due to taking time away. The company cannot stop paying its share of your health insurance. It’s a smart practice to give your employer at least 30 days’ notice and tell exactly why you need leave. You will have to provide a letter from your doctor if your employer requests one. And you’ll want to have a plan in place for what happens after your FMLA time ends.

Sometimes, a person with COPD simply can’t keep working. In its online Blue Book manual, the Social Security Administration recognizes COPD as a potential disability. This means you can apply for disability benefits to help cover your living expenses.

But just saying you have COPD or you regularly need a breathing mask isn’t enough. You’ll need your doctor’s notes and records showing why oxygen is necessary, and results of bloodwork and breathing tests, among other medical documentation. You may want to hire an attorney who specializes in disability requests.

Breathing issues from COPD create challenges with all types of jobs that you shouldn’t minimize. But there are many tips, tactics, and resources available for you to enjoy a rewarding job as you manage COPD. Take full advantage of them.