Managing eczema at work
It’s hard to do your job properly when eczema’s rearing its itchy head. Alice Lambert suggests some ways to reduce the impact of eczema on your working life. This article was published in Exchange 182, December 2021.
As trying as the pandemic has undoubtedly been, it has had its silver linings. For many people with eczema, being able to work from home has been a godsend. Working from home can mean less exposure to certain triggers – including stress – and the time and space to apply emollient more frequently, leading to fewer flare-ups. For some people with eczema on visible areas of skin or relentless itch, working from home has also provided relief from stares, comments or well-meaning but unwanted advice from colleagues or fellow commuters.
However reluctantly or happily you’ve returned to the workplace (if you’ve returned at all), how best can you manage eczema when you’re there?
Temperature in the workplace is a thorny issue, even for people who don’t have eczema. People’s temperature preferences can vary to an infuriating degree, and temperature is a common eczema trigger.
Here are some tips:
- If you sit next to a radiator or windows that get a lot of sun and this affects your skin, ask if you can move to a different desk or part of the office.
- That said, if you’re able to open windows, sitting beside one (thereby having more control over when and how much they are opened) might be a good idea.
- If you’re often too hot, request a desk fan.
- Dress in thin layers that you can easily add or remove. If you get cold easily, keep a shawl or jumper at your workplace, if possible.
Fragrance and cleaning products
Fragrance in the workplace can come in several different forms, all of which have the potential to
irritate eczema. Try these ideas:
- Your workplace’s hand soap is likely to contain ingredients that aren’t ideal for people with eczema. Bring emollient in to work and, after washing your hands with soap, use it to moisturise them.
- Hand dryers can dry out the skin. Bring in your own hand towel to work or ask your employer to provide paper hand towels.
- If your skin is irritated by the cleaning products used on surfaces, ask whether a different product could be used. Suggest products you use at home.
- Does a colleague’s perfume make your skin prickle? Speak to them in private, explaining that you have eczema, which makes your skin very sensitive to fragrances, and you’ve noticed that their perfume triggers your eczema. Alternatively, speak to your manager about it – perhaps they could implement a fragrance policy for the team without singling anyone out.
Clothing including masks
It’s miserable being stuck in clothing that irritates your skin all day. These tips might help:
- Wear looser-fitting clothing and open collars. If you have to wear a tie, leave the top button of your shirt undone.
- It’s possible to look professional in a wardrobe made entirely from eczema-friendly materials: cotton, bamboo, Tencel or silk. For a list of stockists of clothing made from eczema-friendly materials, check out our Clothing and eczema factsheet. Most of the stockists’ clothing is aimed at women, though. If anyone has any suggestions for stockists of eczema-friendly office wear for men, let us know!
- If you wear a uniform that’s not available in 100% cotton, wear a short or long-sleeved cotton T-shirt underneath to act as a barrier between uniform and skin.
- If possible, keep spare items of clothing at work that you can change into if you get skin flakes or emollient on the clothes you’re wearing.
- If your workplace requires you to wear a mask, try wearing a 100% cotton mask under your personal protective equipment. Wash cotton masks daily to remove oil and skin-cell residue. It might help to apply a protective layer of emollient (and lip balm) before putting on a mask, and to cleanse and moisturise the face with emollient after wearing a mask for a prolonged period of time. Remove your mask during breaks and try to take breaks outside.
Working while itchy
Few things are calculated to distract a person from essential work tasks as much as eczema itch. Try these tips:
- If you can, apply emollient during the day. Ask your manager or human resources department if there’s a private, lockable room that you could use for applying emollient – for example, a medical, breastfeeding or prayer room.
- Cool emollients can feel soothing against itchy skin, so if you have access to a fridge at work, store your emollient in it (unless it’s an ointment-based emollient).
- If you don’t have access to a private space at work, apply an emollient with long-lasting moisturising properties before leaving home. These might include an ointment or a cream with humectant ingredients, such as propylene glycol, lactic acid, urea and glycerol or glycerin.
- Even if you can’t apply emollient to your whole body at work, you can still take in a small dispenser to moisturise your hands after washing them.
Holding a cold compress against an itchy area can help reduce itch. Here are some examples of things you could use:
- a sock filled with uncooked rice and tied at the end, and kept in the freezer (if you have access to one at work)
- a flannel soaked in water, put in a resealable plastic bag, and frozen
- a flat stone.
If your compress has just come out of the freezer, it’s a good idea to put a barrier between it and your skin – for example, a tea towel.
If the itch is uncontrollable, take a break.
To disclose or not to disclose?
Some of the suggestions made here involve speaking to your manager about making adjustments. If you haven’t already spoken to your employer about your eczema, might this be helpful? On the one hand, you might find it difficult to discuss something so personal with your manager. It is natural to worry about their perceptions of you changing, or about being treated differently. Unfortunately, not all workplaces are as accommodating as they should be towards people with long-term conditions.
On the other hand, letting your employer know about your eczema could make a positive difference to your working life. Being open about how eczema affects you will allow them to support you when you need it. A decent employer will appreciate your choosing to trust them and take the opportunity to help you work to the best of your ability.
If you do decide to tell your employer, think about when and how you will do it, and who to speak to. In the first instance, you might choose to discuss it with your HR team, if you have one, rather than your manager. Practise what you’re going to say. You don’t have to go into detail – focus on how eczema is likely to affect your job.
The same principles apply when it comes to telling colleagues about your eczema. You only need to tell them if you want to, and only share what you feel comfortable sharing. Explaining that you have eczema might stop quizzical glances at your cotton gloves or raised eyebrows at the sight of you tapping your skin with a fingernail (an alternative to scratching). You might even discover that other colleagues have eczema or skin conditions that affect them in a similar way and might appreciate your broaching the topic.
For help dealing with colleagues’ reactions to your eczema, the charity Changing Faces has a page entitled ‘Managing challenges at work connected to your visible difference’ (www.changingfaces.org.uk).
Still have workplace woes?
If you still have eczema-related workplace woes, it’s worth considering your options. If the workplace triggers your eczema and you’re able to do your job from home, speak to your manager about the possibility of working from home more often or exclusively. An increase in homeworking and hybrid working (working partly in the workplace and partly remotely) is likely to be a lasting legacy of the pandemic.
At the time of writing, employees must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible to request flexible working. However, proposed legislative changes, if implemented, will allow employees to make flexible working requests from day one of a new job. See the Government’s website for more information: www.gov.uk/flexible-working.