Hay Fever’s Hidden Springtime Toll

in Outdoor Allergies
Published: July 2, 2010

IT’S EARLY MAY. In a typical workplace where 100 co-workers share close quarters, the droning sounds of keyboarding, shifting chairs and phone conversation are punctuated increasingly by sniffing, staccato sneezing and explosive nose-blowing. Statistics tell us that 40 of these 100 co-workers suffer from hay fever, a condition still dismissed by the unafflicted as “just the sniffles”.

A quality of life survey conducted by Decima Research for Reactine (the Canadian version of Zyrtec) gives lie to the popular notion that these 40 sufferers are not, well, suffering. Of the 40 employees with hay fever, the survey shows that 23 feel irritable, 22 experience reduced productivity, 17 find their social interactions to be hindered, 10 report reduced libido and five feel “unattractive or unbearable.”

Sniffing and sneezing aside, the data suggest that many of them suffer in silence, and not only physically but socially, psychologically and professionally.

What’s in a Name?

Medical professionals say the very name “hay fever” conveys a merely irksome affliction that should be toughed out. Among non-sufferers, there are contradictory perceptions of this condition. In the Decima survey, 83 per cent of staff in an organization’s human resources department – the gatekeepers of employee performance evaluations – say seasonal allergies affect productivity at work. But only 66 per cent of those HR workers consider allergies to be a valid reason to take time off.

“Hay fever” is a misnomer, as it has little to do with hay and no fever results from an attack, says Dr. Alan Kaplan, chair of the Family Physician Airways Group of Canada. He far prefers the medical term “seasonal allergic rhinitis,” which captures the congestion, mucus overproduction and sneezing symptoms of the season. The itchy, watery eyes that are usually part of the package are properly referred to as allergic conjunctivitis.

Dr. Jeremy Beach, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, says the term hay fever trivializes the condition, making people wrongly think “you shouldn’t really worry about it.” In fact, especially in concert with non-seasonal triggers, allergic rhinitis can have a significant effect. Beach, who has a particular interest in work-related asthma and allergies, believes that academics and scientists have “under-researched” this insidious affliction because “it is not seen as life-threatening whereas other types of allergy can be.”

Part of allergic rhinitis’s profile problem is that Canada has no broad national strategy to bring it into the spotlight, says Dr. Harold Kim, an allergist in Kitchener, Ontario, who holds academic appointments at McMaster University and the University of Western Ontario. He says family doctors search for symptoms of breast cancer, cardiac disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, but most physicians, except for allergists, do not commonly ask about allergy symptoms. “In my experience, patients must be proactive and request an allergy assessment,” he says.

Kim is hopeful this could change with the publication in the Canadian Journal of Otolaryngology in April 2007 of “excellent guidelines” for doctors to diagnose and treat allergic rhinitis. Getting the guidelines put into practice, however, has gone slower than expected: “The problems of implementing revolve around issues of how to change human behavior,” he explains. “It is not easy.” Having helped to produce the protocols, Kim’s priorities are to have them modified for patients, and to get the word out to doctors and patients alike.

At Work, But Not All There

It has been workplace and classroom productivity research that is gradually shining a light in this dim corner. Our society’s obsession with efficiency and productivity has clashed with the millions of people with rhinitis who just can’t keep up. The result is what management gurus and occupational health specialists call “presenteeism,” or lost productivity while at work.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Management Studies reported that increasingly “employees were substituting presenteeism for absenteeism”: they showed up while ill or injured more often than they stayed home. Meantime, an article in Current Medical Research and Opinion singled out allergic rhinitis as the top reason for presenteeism and lost productivity at 47 workplaces studied in the United States.

Calculations revealed that allergic rhinitis sufferers were absent only 3.6 days per year, but were unproductive on average for 2.3 hours per workday. The study determined allergic rhinitis cost the companies $593 per employee per year. That’s ahead of high stress ($518) and more than twice the amount for other conditions including migraines ($277), arthritis ($269), and respiratory infections ($181).

Allergist Dr. Donald Stark explains that “allergies are a type of chronic inflammation, so the body dealing with inflammation is tiring in itself. Even if [people with allergies] fall asleep, some don’t get into the deeper stages of sleep because their airways get obstructed, and they start to toss and turn to get to breath again.” Stark adds that allergy sufferers don’t even have to feel consciously tired to function poorly. “There are studies that show some adverse effect on performance at school or work – there is some amount of impairment.”

Robin Bayley of Victoria knows about lost productivity. Working from home as a privacy and policy consultant, she says the strong antihistamines she takes for rhinitis “blow (her) schedule out of the water.” She dreads the spring pollen season when her eyes water so much that the skin around them gets chapped. “I once went on vacation in Arizona, and my eyes were so watery and swollen I could barely see the Grand Canyon.”

When his allergic rhinitis peaks, lawyer Gary Blaney says he gets so tired that he has to limit client meetings to the morning. “The air conditioning in my office helps keep me clear in the morning, but the aching and fatigue begin to take their toll after lunch,” he says. “By the time I get home, I feel miserable and wiped out.”

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