Managing Severe Allergies at Work

Allergies at Work | CorporetteHow — and when — should you tell employers about your requirements for an allergy-friendly office? Reader J wonders:

After reading your latest article, Frequent Doctors’ Appointments, I found the courage to write you. I do suffer from severe allergies (foods and aerosols). I have graduated from university (physics), some work experience (energy business) and added up some economics studies, because I was unsure about being able to handle a “normal” office job. By now, I believe more in myself and am searching for a job (consulting/energy), but I will have to tell my future employer about my limits: 1) The rooms in which I work must be free of plants (important!). 2) I might have problems working “on schedule” in August and September. (In our climate here I have been struggling with asthma attacks, circulation problems, and developing new allergies for the last 5 years.) 3) The office should be mostly fragrance-free. These are the “basic conditions” about which I plan to inform any prospective employer in the second interview. How do I best do it without kicking myself out of the game immediately?

Hmmmn. First, J, I’m sorry to hear that you have such severe allergies! I’m not sure that arriving with a list of demands is the best way to go about this, but I’m curious to hear what readers say. The whole letter reminds me a bit of the recent news story about the female academic who had an offer rejected because she was too “demanding” in her requests while negotiating. That’s one way to do it — give your employer a list of things you’d like granted after you have the offer in hand and are negotiating. But a few notes about your situation:

  • Know your rights. You may want to consult with an employment lawyer before even starting the process so you know what your rights are going into the situation. This area of law is still in flux and may vary by state — a federal court in Iowa just held that severe allergies may be covered under the American with Disabilities Act. This Department of Labor FAQ sheet on disabled rights may also be helpful to you and inform how you proceed. If your allergy is severe enough that you think you’ll be covered under the law, you may act differently than if, after researching it, you don’t think you’ll be covered. You may also want to get familiar with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
  • Don’t get too “grabby” early on in the interview process. You mention telling your prospective employer in your second interview about the “basic conditions” you require. I’m afraid you will kick yourself out of the game immediately if you do that. I would wait until you have an offer before you make any demands.
  • Assess what you can without asking directly. For example, asking to see the place where you would be working is a reasonable request, and one that would allow you to see if there are plants there, how many people are in the space immediately around you, and so forth.
  • Rephrase the conversation in your head to more reasonable (and regular) negotiation topics. For example: extra vacation time, extra sick days, or flexible working conditions would all address your second point about August and September being horrible for you. On the other hand, asking for a “pass” for 1/6th of the year is probably not going to serve you that well.
  • Realize that not everything has to be “disclosed” or negotiated. You note that you MIGHT have problems working on schedule — I’m curious how many people would agree that you should disclose that. When we’ve talked about this in situations in the past — for example, women interviewing while pregnant, or expecting/trying to get pregnant soon — they might feel obligated to disclose that they may be too sick or exhausted from the pregnancy to work normal hours. The common wisdom that I’ve seen — and I’ll pass to you — is to see how it goes, and deal with the problem when it ACTUALLY happens. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t. For my $.02, I’d negotiate for flexible working conditions and/or more sick days or vacation days, but I’d keep it close to my chest as to WHY I’m negotiating.
  • Finally: focus on what your employers can actually grant you. Your third point — a fragrance-free office — may be very hard for an employer to grant. Asking them to circulate a department-wide memo (or a memo targeted to the group of people working in your closest physical vicinity) sounds like a better negotiating request in my mind. In the comments on our post about perfume at the office there was some discussion about perfume sensitivity and how to deal with it at work, so you might find some useful tips there.

(Pictured: New plants! With names!, originally uploaded to Flickr by Sara Thompson.)

Readers with severe allergies or other environmental sensitivities — do you approach your situation as a disability? What kind of accommodations have you asked for and received? In general do you have any tips for Reader J?


  1. So, my reaction to this is. “Really? Any plants? Even a fern? What about succulents? And how do you handle university classes? Do all of your classmates shower before entering? And I need you to work 12 months of the year, not 10.”

    And I think that reaction will be what is going to go through your employers head if you present this as a list of demands at an interview. Look for the least amount of things you need and open a discussion about those needs after you have an offer.

    • Yeaaaah. I am sympathetic to Reader J, but this is not something that you need to address with your potential employer. This is something you need to address with your doctor. My SO also suffers from severe seasonal allergies (asthma attacks, increased allergens, etc), and he takes medicine daily to control it. Otherwise he can’t, you know, go outside or function in society.

      • Diana Barry :

        +1. You cannot present your interviewer (!!) with a list of “demands” IN THE INTERVIEW when you don’t even have an offer yet!!! Please discuss with your doctor first. If it is covered under the ADA or similar law, then requesting accommodations would be done after you have an offer.

  2. naijamodel :

    To the OP, please do not discuss this in your interview!! Assuming that this issue is severe enough to qualify as a disability under the ADA:

    What I would suggest is that you collect all medical documentation related to your condition and have it handy. When a prospective employer expresses interest in you, look up / ask for the person who handles accommodations (if the hiring committee does not know, someone in HR should know). This person should help ensure that the interview space meets your needs, so be frank and share your concerns.

    If you are hired, the same person/office should help coordinate your accommodations – as the bridge between you and your supervisor. While well-intentioned, supervisors may be ill-equipped to handle your request. Most large organizations have someone who deals with ADA issues. I work in the field and you are much better off having a neutral third party work this out, if possible.

  3. Anonymous 2 :

    I read this and rolled my eyes. My first thought was ‘oh we have a special snowflake on hands’. I feel bad that that was my first reaction but I can’t help but think others will react the same.

    • I agree. I Also think the OP needs to do as much as possible to minimize her allergies on her own (allergy shots, antihistamines, etc…). It can’t all be about other people catering to you. I can see the office using scent-free cleaning products, but you can’t ask all the people on your floor to use scent free personal hygiene products. Or tell everyone to get rid of their plants.

      • I work for a federal agency, and I was shocked one day to walk into another building on Center for a meeting, and there was a sign saying it was a scent-free building. I wasn’t aware such a thing existed before reading about it here, and I don’t typically wear perfume, but there was nothing I could do about my deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, … I felt badly for whomever needed the accommodation, but there was nothing I could do. I guess this is all to say, apparently you can ask all the people to use scent-free products!

    • Lorelai Gilmore :

      I think this is a little unfair, though I understand that it’s an honest reaction.

      People like to dismiss allergies as a personal preference, but trust me: as the parent of a child with a peanut allergy, it is terrifying, omnipresent, and no, I can’t just get over it or feed her some peanuts to see how she handles it. Allergies are not special snowflake territory. They are physical impairments or disabilities that can result in serious health consequences and can sometimes be fatal.

      The best advice you got, OP, was to treat this not as a series of preferences but as a disability that requires accomodation under the ADA.

      • Anonymous 2 :

        You’re blurring the line between allergies and anaphylaxis. Discomfort versus threat of life. Different ball games in my mind.

      • “Allergies are not special snowflake territory.” +86,735,046

        We don’t know what discomfort OP’s allergies cause, but we can infer that it must be severe. It could very well be the same ball game as anaphylaxis – we just don’t know. If a doctor determines she may need to come in late, then treat it as such – a disability. I will agree with some of the sentiment in that I can’t imagine scent/plant allergies being so severe (and not life threatening) that it justifies coming to work late for potentially an entire season, but perhaps that’s just my ignorance… and perhaps that’s the sort of ignorance OP should expect from your Average Joe thereby making it extra critical that if it allergy is that severe it’s made clear this is not a preference.

      • This is different than a peanut allergy and there are levels of reasonableness. E.g., asking people not to bring in peanuts v. asking everyone not to bring in anything that was ever in the vicinity of peanuts. OP’s “requirements” of no plants of any kind, no fragrances within the entire office and permission to not show up to work for months are not reasonable.

  4. naijamodel :

    Just coming back to say to the OP, that although many may react with surprise or horror or whatever – there are MANY people living with invisible disabilities in the workforce who are receiving accommodations that others are unaware of. I am being very general to protect my anonymity, but again – your best bet is to approach this from the disability route if your condition is that severe. There are people like me out there to help qualified people with such conditions find employment and keep it!

  5. I tolD my boss about my allergy to his cheap cologne but he laughed and has ignored me. Can I bring a case up against him or the company ? I have asthma. Help!

    • I think you’re trying to be funny, but many personal care products are known to cause reactions in people in people who are not using them. For the record, the OP isn’t asking about bringing a case. She’s asking about how she can work her best.

    • jenna maroney :

      Well I laughed Verna!

  6. it's about tone :

    I have severe seasonal allergies and chemical sensitivities (ok, these are self-diagnosed but real), although not as severe as the OP, so I get it. You can’t be sitting next to someone with a glade plug-in. But I think it is all about tone. This letter appears to have been written by someone who thinks an employer should be grateful to hire her. Maybe so, but as an entry-level hire, you can’t really have that attitude. Allergies or no allergies, disability or no, you just can’t walk in all entitled with a set of demands. No one in their right mind will hire you.

    Also, as a former consultant, I might suggest that you reconsider this path. Consulting involves by definition working with different groups in different places – you won’t be in a single office location and I do think it will be difficult at best if not impossible for your employer to make these demands on their clients. Consultants pretty much are the people who have to deal with the worst conditions – that’s why they get the big bucks compared to the regular employers. So no, the consultant can’t come in with all kinds of demands and special requests. You might be more suited for a job that allows substantial work from home and/or a set office.

    Good luck.

  7. After you accept the job, you need to request “reasonable accommodation” for your condition from your employer. Do your research.

  8. Curious if the OP has considered moving to a climate that would be better for her allergies? Something about the writing style makes me think the OP is from the UK – the energy business could take you worldwide, including very dry areas of the US or far north, where there would be presumably less plant life.

  9. I think this would be a good question for Ask a Manager (or search through the archives on that site–might be otherwise covered).

  10. I totally agree that you should not disclose this info in the interview. Can I suggest that once you have a job (I’m assuming you don’t currently have any/great healthcare) you look into getting allergy shots? My husband had extremely severe allergies that manifested in a similar manner to what you are describing and while the shots are a grueling process, they are absolutely worth the results! Even better if you can find a doctor near your work since you will need to go in multiple times a week at first. Also, get your vitamin D levels checked, since low vitamin D may be related to the onset of new allergies. Good luck!

    • Wannabe Runner :

      Yeah, agree with this. Workplaces (at least in the US) can provide reasonable accommodations, but what you are asking for isn’t entirely reasonable.

      I have severe allergies and asthma, including being allergic to some plants and mold that grows on them, but I would never ask for everyone else in my company to get rid of their plants. Just not reasonable, and it would really hurt team morale.

      If your sensitivities are self-diagnosed, then get a doctor’s opinion and suggestions on reasonable work accommodations.

      Many people have health-related challenges or disabilities. You can choose to blame your lack of a job on your condition, or you can work to overcome it. Allergy shots and inhalers and pills can all do wonders. If you’re not taking those steps to control your condition, why should a workplace take the actions you are requesting?

    • Anonymous :

      I’d give the OP the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s already on allergy shots or her doctor has ruled them out for some legitimate reason. Allergy shots are not like some super secret magic cure–they’re pretty well-known and most people with *actually* severe allergies are already on them. And yet still have symptoms. I don’t even consider myself anywhere near the worst camp of allergy sufferers, and I’ve been on shots for 10 years, take twice-daily antihistamines + psuedoephedrine, daily nasal spray, and still get sinus infections once per month. To suggest that like omg she discover these shots thingeys and suddenly she’ll be cured is pretty laughable. And sorry, to the extent I sound annoyed, it’s because I am–there are so many people who like to hear themselves talk, so upon hearing that someone has bad allergy symptoms, instead of keeping quiet because they can’t speak intelligently on the topic, their immediate, uninformed response is “could you get shots?”

      As to the actual OP question, I agree completely with the response from it’s about tone.

      • I’m sorry to hear that you suffer so badly from allergies. I know that they manifest quite differently in people and her allergies seem to be more the lung inflammation/asthma than the sinus type and that is what my husband had as well, hence my recommendation. They certainly don’t work for everyone but wanted to bring it up just in case she didn’t already know about them. My husband is still severely allergic to cat dander and that will never go away, but he was able to get over his debilitating allergies to the plants/trees in the PNW.

  11. From experience, I can tell you that food allergies are covered under ADA and can be protected with a 504 plan in public schools.

    I would suspect that if the reader’s allergies are so severe that they may interfere with her ability to function in any environment, that there may be protection afforded to her under ADA.

    Edited to add, the previous posters offer a lot of good advice, especially in the treatment realm. Just FYI, if you’re not currently up to date on breaking medical news, FDA has just approved an oral-sublingual seasonal-allergy suppression treatment that is supposed to replace allergy shots. It’s called Oralair.

    • I have a very visible reaction to perfumes and fragrances (watery eyes, sneezing, etc.) I have worked on a treatment plan with my doctor to minimize the reaction but I still react to very heavy scents. During my first few weeks at this office, I was constantly sneezing. Without asking for an accommodation, my coworkers naturally adapted – one coworker toned down her perfume use, we no longer use scented air fresheners and the cleaning staff uses cleaning products with essential oils. I also have asthma and can understand how difficult it can be to get out of the house on a cold morning. However, telling your prospective employer you are unable to work a 40 hour week before receiving an offer is not the best move. In the US, employers must make reasonable accommodations, but they are not required to cater to your every demand.

      I would never want to be the “special snowflake” employee….in fact, I would rather medicate myself than call attention to the problem.

      However, some questions to ask in your second interview might include:
      – What is your policy on flex hours? (Must every employee work a 9-5 or are 7-3 or 11-7 schedules possible.)
      – What working environment should I expect in this position? (Are we talking cubicles, shared offices, flex offices or an office with four walls?)
      – Will you have the option to telecommute?

    • Thank you for sharing, Maggie! It’s a downer to be happy on the first warm day of spring while experiencing itchy eyes and a runny nose.

  12. Scent free :

    Maybe this is not the norm elsewhere (I’m in Canada) but most office buildings and all government buildings have scent-free policies. I don’t think it would be hard or weird for a prospective employer to accommodate this. We have a lawyer in my office with a scent sensitivity of some form or another and we have been told if anyone wears perfume/scented products etc. to work we will be sent home. The health of an employee trumps people’s desires to wear perfume (IMO). I would bring this issue up after I’ve been hired and if I’ve noticed an issue with scents after the first few days. If you were in my region I would tell you there’s a 90% chance the office is scent free already.

    • Anonymous :

      Wow, how does this really work though? Like cleaning supplies have a scent, and if they’re scent-free, it’s often because of a masking odor. All of my products have a scent. . . just not always a florally, musky one, say.

      • I *think* for individuals, you aren’t supposed to use products whose primary purpose is fragrance. So no perfumes, heavily scented lotions, etc. But you can use whatever your normal shampoo/conditioner/lotions are w/o having to buy fragrance-free/no-fragrance-added ones.

        No idea how the cleaning product issue works.

        • This. While a cleaning product’s primary purpose cannot be fragrance, naturally occurring scents are permitted. So vinegar, alcohol, or ammonia based cleaning solutions are acceptable as are products formulated with essential oil.

          • Many scent-causing compounds also are related to causing cancer, asthma, reproductive problems, mutating genes, etc. So, a certification (such a EcoLogo) that disallows these compounds or only allow them in teeny-tiny quantities actually help everybody.

    • Also in Canada and agree that it’s not uncommon to see scent-free notices in govt workplaces or hospitals. Obviously outsiders can’t be expected to know the rules in advance. Most people seem to just avoid wearing cologne/perfume . HR has sent around reminders when someone has come in heavily perfumed or left triggering flowers (e.g. lilies) in a public space.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      It sounds like some other places have similar policies. Maybe the OP can look at this in terms of fit and try to seek out these places to get a job (if they are possible to find ahead of time).

    • I’m also in Canada and am quite surprised by so many comments on this thread as to me a scent-free workplace is pretty much a matter of fact. I actually once had to send a temp home as their cologne was causing issues for the person in the cube next to them.

    • amberwitch :

      This have come up before on this forum. Still thinks it sounds ridiculous. I’d probably start looking for another job if a company tried to interfere with my personal hygiene

    • I work for a large bank in their national office in Toronto. We are scent free and have food allergies that we try to accomodate. We sit in open pod like desks and so far this year, on our floor, we have nut, fish, and citrus allergies….we all comply to my knowledge. And if we don’t, a note goes out via email along with the floor coordinator talking to the person privately who is breaking the rule(s ).

      sometimes I roll my eyes about the food as I would like to eat an orange and a tuna sandwich but not as much as someone needs to breathe. lol

      I wear and use normal products such as deodorant, shampoo, hair wax, etc (all scented) but I dont spray perfume at the office. No one has complained about my light perfume that I put on a 5am…I figure you would have to almost kissing me to smell it and it must be almost dissolved by the time I start at 8am

  13. Stupid question :

    This is a stupid question, but I’d like to hear why it’s a stupid question: would wearing a medical mask over mouth and nose lessen the severity of allergies?

    • 1) Allergic reactions to fragrances aren’t always caused by inhalation alone – particles can also irritate skin or cause other issues with skin contact.

      2) Wearing a medical mask would prevent regular workplace interactions, like talking with people clearly

      3) Medical masks are not comfortable and make it hard to breathe, which sounds particularly unpleasant if OP has asthma issues.

    • Probably yes, if it was a serious enough mask/ A medical mask might not be enough, but perhaps a gas mask? I think the problem is the discomfort and unprofessionalness of that in an office setting.

      I would look for a job that comes with your own office with a door. Then, you can 1) have no plants in your office. 2) Put an air filter or scent neutralizer or whatever you need in your office and 3) shut the door.

      If you work closely with someone or a group of people, you could send a brief e-mail saying “I have severe allergies to fragrances and certain plants. I know to most people your fragrance is lovely. It would keep me much healthier if you refrained from wearing perfume on days you are planning to meet with me and if we did meetings in my office where I have an air filter in place.” Some people just aren’t going to comply, but if you do this, you can probably minimize your exposure.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      My former coworker’s mom was disabled from her fragrance allergies. In order to leave the house, she would have to be on oxygen.

  14. My fiance and I just moved in together and I’m starting to feel really homesick. I have lived at home until now and really miss my family and cat. Is this normal? I know it’s going to take some time to adjust but I can’t help but feel a bit sad at what is supposed to be a happy moment.

    • Wannabe Runner :

      Totally normal!! You’ll figure it out. :)

    • You might get more responses if you repost this on the coffee break thread this afternoon :)

      ETA: oh, you already did. oops!

    • I cried for like a week when I moved in with my husband (I also have attachment issues and issues with change lol). I adjusted after the second week, though, and loved it!

  15. I have moderate to severe asthma and severe allergies, depending on where I live.

    I really sympathize with the person that asked the question. You will need to work with your employer _once employed_ to work out reasonable accommodation. And you will need to speak with co-workers (or, ideally, have HR let people know) that you have some health issues which require people to be sensitive. That said, in my experience, this is NOT a conversation you have before you get hired at all.

    Depending on what country you’re in, you’ll have more or less sympathy–when I was in London, no one much cared that traders at my bank were smoking on the stairwell, causing latent smoke that made me really sick. In the US, this would have been handled. In the US, when I worked at a law firm that had tons of dusty records on shelves outside my office, I talked to HR and they were moved. In both countries, I have gotten air filters for my office or work area which have really helped, especially if there is a lot of printer ink/toner in an area without good air circulation, which sets my asthma off.

    My other big suggestion to you, and I am sorry if this is really pedantic, is to get a better allergist. Your allergies sound completely out of control. You don’t need to live this way!!! You need to find a very good specialist who can work with you to have good preventative measures in place such that your allergies do not get out of control, or, if that’s not possible, to minimize symptoms at times of year that things are bad. That might mean different antihistamines, anti-leukotrienes, steroids (inhaled, oral, nasal), better shots, etc. I promise you–you don’t have to suffer as you are suffering, even if things are really severe. Yes, you absolutely need to minimize triggers (both at home and at work), but you also need to work with the very best doctors to make sure that your symptoms are minimized and your quality of life is as good as it can be, given your illness. I say this as someone who switched doctors in college, got on anti-leukotrienes (which were new) and literally changed my life. I went from taking my inhaler 20+ times per day, being on a nebulizer several times a year, in and out of emergency rooms…to only taking my inhaler about 1x/day. It really did change my life. If you are not seeing a super-duper specialist, do it. It’s worth it.

    All the best to you. But please understand you need to demonstrate your worth as an employee, and get the offer, before you start having conversations about what you need the employer to do for you. I know this is a medical issue, but people above have warned you–you need to back off on your conditions of work until you get there. (And yes, sadly, this means that you may need to get sick before they take you seriously, which is unfortunate.) Good luck!

  16. Get a small air purifier for your office, get allergy shots or whatever your allergist recommends. I can’t imagine fessing up to this will have anyone beating down the door for a job offer. I do sympathize with you, my last office had mold. My complaints were blown off. Fortunately, we did move offices a few months ago. I had to start getting weekly allergy shots prior to that, which I’ve spent thousands of dollars on. I’m better, in the sense that I’m not too sick to come to work. If you do encounter anyone with strong perfume then you might casually mention that “I wish I could wear it, I’m deathly allergic to it, even the smell of it.” Hopefully they’ll get the hint, but be prepared for them not to…

  17. The OP is saying she wants rooms she works in to be free of plants, not the whole office. Sounds pretty reasonable to me (but definitely not something that needs to be brought up in the interview either).

    • Presumably that would impact all rooms OP has to pass through, all conference rooms and even her supervisors’ offices.

  18. Request accommodations from your employer only once you have accepted the job, and have started working. THEN talk to HR about the accommodations you need. They are required by law to accommodate you if at all reasonably possible.

  19. Gruntled Epidemiologist :

    First, I second the suggestion that you get your allergies re-evaluated. If you’re majoring in physics, I’m assuming that you were not diagnosed by a naturopath, but your doctor could have missed something. IgE is not a great test for allergies — the titers don’t necessarily correlate with the severity of the allergic reaction and there are a lot of false positives. If you’re having circulatory system problems as well, it may be prudent for your doctor to evaluate you for an autoimmune disorder. Your doctor should also be working to help you figure out which plants you’re allergic to — generally people are allergic to pollen and not to all pollens as well as getting your asthma under control. You might also consider moving to a drier climate. Back before corticosteroids, people with life-threatening asthma moved to the southwest. (I’m not a doctor. I spent three years working as an immunologist and can go on for hours about mast cell degranulation but symptoms are not my strong suit.)

    I’d also recommend separating what you absolutely need from what you really want but could live without. It’ll make your list of acomdations shorter. The ADA only has to cover reasonable acomodations, so the fewer you have, the more likely they’ll be able to acomodate your needs. (If you tell an employer that you cannot have any plants in the room where you work, chances are that they’ll roll their eyes and assume you are one of those people who falls for non-existent diseases like Morgellon’s.) Once you’ve established yourself, you can request some of the things on your really want list. For instance, exhaust fumes trigger my migraines. I really can’t work with gasoline-powered landscaping tools. I can work in an office where the fumes from the landscapers below might filter up, but I’d prefer not to and I wouldn’t request that the landscapers do their work before I got in until I had established myself at work.
    Evaluate whether the industry you want to work in will be able to accomodate your needs. And make sure your resume, skills and interview are top-notch. The stronger a candidate you are, the more likely the company will be willign to accomodate you.

  20. Just remembered that when I was on staff at TopLawFirm, a staff/admin employee ended up missing about a month of work (not.kidding.) because the daylight saving time change affected her medication (?) and made her unable to come into work (??). It was, um, dealt with by admin, of course, but kind of annoying to those of us on her team. We dealt. Can’t remember what happened 6 months later.

  21. This is one of those posts that I read with amusement as I admire labor laws in the US or maybe the “West” in general.
    I know in my part of the world, we are grateful to have a job with AC and a coffee machine that works.
    Not only will your employer impose decoration, plants and aerosols (regular cleaning schedule) but there is no way your colleagues will forego their expensive perfume, after shave etc.
    Why would I hire you when I can hire a normal person who would be productive, not picky and glad to have a job at all.
    Yes, third world problems..

  22. What about a job/role that’s fully work-from-home? Harder to come by before establishing yourself, but lots and lots of people telecommute and only go into the office occasionally.

  23. I feel for Reader J, but the truth is that most people will ignore your request no matter how much it means to your health. I have severe allergies/asthma. I had a horrible reaction one day and was intubated by the paramedics in the lobby. After a week in the hospital, my coworkers we ok about scents… but it only lasted about a month. I stay in my office with an air purifier and my door shut. Yes, it makes me look difficult to approach, but it’s keeping me safe.

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