Scent Sensitivity: Encountering problems with your work environment

by epi on October 18, 2012

Q: After having a child six years ago, I’m ow ready to return to work.  However, I suffer from “post-pregnancy scent syndrome.”  Ever since I became pregnant, I’ve been very sensitive to certain scents such as perfumes and restroom air sanitizers.  Breathing these substances gives me a headache and nausea and can sometimes cause difficulty breathing.  According to my physician, this condition is fairly common among women who have been pregnant, and there’s no cure or treatment.  At home, I’ve been able to control my environment by asking family and friends to avoid perfumes, air deodorizers and so on.  I’m concerned about my future work environment, though.  Should I bring up my concern with a potential employer during the interview process?  If so, how?  Also, if I do happen to find myself in a meeting with someone who is wearing perfume (during a job interview, for example, or with a co-worker or client), how can I politely address the situation?

A: The problem of scent sensitivity is a very real and growing issue in the workplace.  Symptoms include headaches as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation, all of which can make it very difficult to focus on work.  The syndrome isn’t just confined to sensitivity to perfumes or colognes; a person can also have a negative reaction to cleaning products.  Some companies have responded by instituting scent-free workplace policies.  The problem is, not all workplaces have a scent-free policy.  In your quest for a job, one approach might be to try eliminating companies right off the bat if they don’t have such a policy.  It may be easier to find an employer with an existing policy than to try and get your new employer to adopt one.  Prior to a job interview, ask a person in the human resources department or even the receptionist answering the phone whether the company has a scent-free policy.  A less desirable approach is to ask about the company’s policy at the interview itself.  Reason: that may reveal a condition that you do not want known as they evaluate you for the job.  Once in a job, if you find yourself reacting to a scent someone is wearing, you’ll have to perform a balancing act between specifically mentioning the problem and choosing just to grin and bear it.  If the situation becomes noticeably difficult for you, the best approach is to politely explain your problem in a nonconfrontational way: “Jill, I’m sorry, you may not know it, but I have a strong reaction to certain scents and that seems to be happening now.  Perhaps if I keep a little more space between us, I won’t be affected as much.  I hope you’ll understand.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rae October 18, 2012 at 8:29 am

I’ve never had a child, and I deal with this issue, I have since age 14. It’s really difficult to broach the subject with co-workers. There’s no diagnosis, you don’t have an inhaler or epi-pen, there’s no state or federal protection for an undiagnosed condition like that. Effects are hives if I have direct contact with my skin, nausea, headache, serious trouble breathing after more than a few minutes.

I can’t be near certain cleaning products, all perfumes, all candles (with the exception of natural oil+soy candles. Those don’t trigger an issue), and walking through a mall or a department store can be dangerous, since I don’t know if American Eagle or Hollister will be pumping out that nasty “cologne” through their vents to attract preteens, or if there’s a Yankee Candle store that will mean I have to hold my breath or run for 20 yards to get free of the scent. It’s really, really rough.

I think part of the reason it’s so hard to talk about is because it can sound like you’re criticizing someone, basically saying, “You’re gross! I think you smell bad!” when it’s so much more than that. I have a REALLY hard time saying to someone, “Please don’t sit near me,” or “Please for the love of all that is holy DO NOT spray yourself down with that “perfume” right next to my cubicle when you return from your cigarette break!” because I don’t want to be a pain or sound stupid. But… then I end up having an awful reaction and then have to explain myself anyway. Ugh. No winning. I wish it was something I could use medication for.

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Just Laura October 18, 2012 at 10:49 am

If you get a doctor’s note describing the diagnoses (it could fall under the umbrella of allergies, or could be a diagnosed Chemical Sensitivity), then a “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace that would not cause “undue financial strain” on your employer would be for the scents to be eliminated or lessened greatly (for instance, our workplace doesn’t allow candles and the soap is unscented). In a past job in Florida, one of the sections of the employee dress code was about perfumes/colognes, and how they are acceptable until someone complains or requests that we cease wearing them (I always wore two squirts of Burberry, and no one complained).

I put the above terms into quotation marks as those are the phrases used by the Americans with Disabilities Act. I would take this to your HR with a very kind message of, “hey, here’s my doctor’s note – I just can’t be around strong perfumes. Could we send out an email about this?”

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Rae October 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

That’s pretty cool, thank you. Does it seem a little passive-aggressive to go through HR, or is that probably the best way? I’ve tried that route and felt terribly immature in previous jobs, but it seems less personal that way, so hopefully no one will be hurt by me seeming rude.

R

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Just Laura October 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

When it comes to your health and the law, I am less concerned about rudeness (although polite/kind phrasing can work wonders with a coworker!)

What is the point of HR, other than to be a resource for the employees? In this situation, a blanket policy statement is less direct than, “Hey, Lisa, your perfume gives me migraines.” Even if intended respectfully, it can feel like an attack on the person. If a coworker told me she thought I need to wear less flashy shoes, I’d be offended. If HR sent out an email stating that the new policy is that women’s shoes must all be black, I’d be irked, but not angry at a particular person.

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