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Working With Eczema: Does Your Boss Understand?

Posted on August 04, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Article written by
Imee Williams

Many people living with eczema deal with challenges — both physical and social — in their work environment because of their skin condition. Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a chronic inflammatory skin disorder that causes dry, itchy skin that may become swollen, discolored, and thickened. If eczema is not treated or managed properly, it can lead to skin infections that cause burning, oozing, and open wounds.

Employers might not understand eczema, but you will likely need their support for extra sick time or other accommodations to help keep your skin safe and healthy. Your boss may think of eczema as just an issue of dry, flaky skin, but anyone living with the condition knows how uncomfortable the chronic symptoms can be. In fact, a recent study found that eczema can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life. People living with moderate to severe eczema reported a worse quality of life compared to people living with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

If you’re comfortable discussing your eczema, it’s important to talk to your boss about work conditions that may trigger your eczema or make your eczema worse. Hopefully, with more knowledge about eczema, your boss can better understand how your work affects your health and well-being.

Talk to Your Boss and Co-Workers

Not everyone is familiar with eczema. It’s important to talk with your boss about the severity of your condition and possible triggers so they can help you. For example, you may need time off from work to attend doctor’s appointments. You might also need to take sick days if your eczema symptoms become too severe or too painful to work with. Consider talking with your dermatologist about your specific work triggers. Your doctor can write a letter explaining your triggers, which might help facilitate conversations with your boss.

Talking with your boss or co-workers may help you overcome social barriers and provide a sense of relief. With these conversations, you can also debunk common myths people may have about eczema, such as that it is contagious, unhygienic, or curable. Having a supportive boss and co-workers can help create a positive overall work environment.

Explain Your Physical Challenges at Work

Wet work” occupations — such as in health care, cosmetology, farming, construction, cleaning, animal handling, or food production — are jobs that involve repeated hand-washing and exposure to soaps or detergents, chemicals, and damp materials. Wet work occupations have been shown to contribute to the development of hand eczema. A person living with eczema may have their symptoms worsened or triggered in work environments like these. Simple measures, such as wearing gloves, may help alleviate your symptoms at work.

Extreme temperatures may also create challenges for some people with eczema. Being exposed to cold, dry weather conditions or excessive heat, humidity, or sweating can sometimes aggravate eczema symptoms. There may be an easy way to control the environment of your office or workplace to reduce flare-ups at work.

People living with moderate to severe eczema commonly have trouble sleeping due to itching, which can impact their work performance. If you’re having trouble sleeping because of your eczema symptoms, talk with your dermatologist. There are medications that may help with sleep.

Work with your boss to make a plan for how you can do your job while best managing your eczema symptoms. You may need to adjust your responsibilities or build flexibility into your schedule, in case you need to take time off. Several studies have found that work-related eczema symptoms significantly increased sick leave. One study investigated people living with eczema among nine European countries and found that 26 percent had reported taking six to 10 sick days in the previous year because of their skin disorder.

Explain Your Social Challenges at Work

Another study of people with eczema found that more than 55 percent of people had difficulty in social situations at work. There are several misconceptions about eczema, and some people may wrongfully think eczema is contagious or unsanitary.

In one study, people living with eczema reported embarrassment, shyness, or withdrawal when eczema was visible on their hands, arms, or face. This study also found that eczema can influence a person’s clothing choice — a person may choose to hide their eczema with clothing or to wear only certain fabrics that don’t irritate their skin. Some folks report feeling less professional in their appearance due to this challenge. If it helps, keep the lines of communication open with your boss and co-workers about your needs and ways of managing them.

Other Ways To Manage Eczema at Work

Talking with your boss and your co-workers is an important first step to managing eczema at work. Here are other ways to help make working with eczema as easy as possible.

Avoid Triggers

It's important to understand what triggers or worsens your eczema symptoms. If you are unsure, talk with your doctor or dermatologist about common triggers so you can eliminate and identify your own. Common triggers include:

  • Work uniforms or clothing made of wool or synthetic fabrics
  • Frequent hand-washing
  • Stress
  • Air conditioning or heaters
  • Dusty rooms and equipment
  • Fragranced products
  • Soaps or detergents
  • Solvents or chemicals
  • Certain foods
  • Hand sanitizers

Protect Your Skin

It's important to protect your skin as much as possible. Try:

One MyEczemaTeam member shared their experience working with severe eczema. “My job involves a lot of hand-washing and wearing gloves,” they said. “I learned to have my own skin routine throughout the day to prevent flare-ups. I bring my own soap from home that contains lotion, and I always moisturize with hand cream after washing my hands.”

Understand the Material Safety Data Sheet

Since 1970, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has required all places of work to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of known risks for skin allergies, irritants, or cancer. It is important to know what chemicals you are exposed to at your workplace to help keep yourself safe. Be sure to ask your boss for a copy of your company’s MSDS.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyEczemaTeam, more than 37,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.

Does your boss understand your eczema? What tips do you have for others about working with eczema? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyEczemaTeam.

Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Imee Williams is a freelance writer and Fulbright scholar, with a B.S. in neuroscience from Washington State University. Learn more about her here.

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