Is it fair to get sniffy when employees miss work due to hay fever?

15 Apr 2019 By Vicki Field

Vicki Field explores how employers can support staff when the spring sneezing starts

One of the key signs of spring is when the plants begin to flower: daffodils appear in borders and fields, and blossom trees drop their confetti over city streets

However, all of these plants release pollen, the fine powder which is much loved by bees but can cause much irritation to humans. Coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and blocked sinuses may sound like the flu, but actually they are all symptoms of hay fever. 

In basic terms, pollen acts as an allergen which means it causes the nose, eyes, throat and sinuses to become swollen and inflamed. 

Why is this relevant to an employer?

Hay fever is a genuine condition which can affect millions of people: estimates suggest that one in five people will suffer from it at some point in their lives. Symptoms can range from mild to serious, something more akin to the flu. It doesn’t pose a serious threat to health but people with severe hay fever can find it disrupts their productivity, and even their mental health.

Unlike a cold, hay fever can last for months – until the pollen count reduces. This begs the question: is it reasonable for employees with hay fever to miss work?

Clinical director at London Doctors Clinic, Dr Daniel Fenton, says that hay fever symptoms can be truly debilitating.

“The severity can vary from one individual to another and may also be dependent upon the type of pollen they are sensitive to. While many assume the itching and sneezing is trivial, the build-up of histamine can precipitate far more substantive symptoms," he says.

“Severe hay fever sufferers often complain of a ‘brain fog’, an inability to focus, which can significantly reduce productivity. The weeping eyes caused by allergic conjunctivitis can make focusing on a computer screen practically impossible. The sinus congestion and persistent runny nose can make sitting in an air-conditioned office, or worse, one with windows open, entirely unbearable.

“Many man hours are lost each year as a result of hay fever, and those with severe symptoms may genuinely, justifiably need to miss days at work.”

So what can employers do to help staff who have the condition?

  • Understand that hay fever is a genuine condition which can have really negative side effects on employees.

  • Publicise ‘self-help’ tools through your wellness strategies or internal communications, such as taking over-the-counter antihistamines, wearing wrap-around sunglasses, changing and showering when employees get home to remove pollen from clothes, or even applying Vaseline around the nose to trap the pollen. There are also a host of ‘natural’ cures, such as eating local honey in the run-up to hay fever season, or hot curries which help open the nasal cavities, or turmeric which has anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Use your absence data to identify trends – look at high levels of absence on particular days and map it to the pollen count, the results might be interesting. Identify where employees had recurring ‘summer colds’ or flu from January through September. In this case, it could mean that the person has hay fever, and is just not recognising the symptoms.

  • If an employee has really serious hay fever, consider allowing them to work from home on days where there is a high pollen count. Travelling outside, and particularly in cities where the air can be polluted, means the person is being subject to the highest levels of pollen – leading to worse symptoms. Working from home means they can close windows, and even wrap a damp flannel around their face to minimise the amount of pollen in their vicinity.

  • Private GPs can prescribe antihistamines, nasal sprays and eye drops, as well as offering the hay fever injection which can reduce or remove the negative impacts of hay fever. These treatments are not available on the NHS but can be offered to employees through private clinics – which they can pay for, or the employer can cover directly.

By Vicki Field, HR director at London Doctors Clinic

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