Talking about Perfume at Work

Migraine.com asked, “Do you have a coworker who insists on wearing perfume even though it triggers your migraine?  How can we communicate with these people so that they understand the impact their actions have on our health without going to war with them?”  The question prompted Suki to write the following blog in response on October 2, 2013.

English: migraine magazine issue #1
English: migraine magazine issue #1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I began to comment and realized I could write a book on the topic of communicating with co-workers about perfume as a migraine trigger.Take what you can digest and leave the rest.  I am a person living with migraine disease and highly sensitive to “fragrance”: a chemical concoction ubiquitous in the personal care, cosmetic and housekeeping products sold in stores today.
Fragrance blocks my access to work, home, family, community, recreation, and travel. I’ve made acquaintance with others who experience the same barriers; people living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, allergies and other diseases.

What Everyone Should Know about Migraine

There are many reputable resources for more information about migraine.
In a nutshell, migraine is an incurable, disabling neurological disease that interferes with one or more basic life functions depending on the symptoms and severity of the disease in the individual.
The nervous system of a person with migraine disease tends to be sensitive in varying degrees to various forms of sensory input; e.g., light, sounds, smells, touch and/or movement. (I have been overwhelmed by the input from my “sixth sense”, but that’s another blog altogether.)
Degree and type of sensitivity may change over time. When volatile fragrance fumes reach the trigeminal nerve endings in my nasal passage I experience the following:
  • an immediate or delayed migraine episode; or, in the case of chronic migraine, a flare-up;
  • excruciating pain;
  • additional symptoms of brain fog, confusion, aphasia, fatigue, blurred or double vision, and anxiety;
  • strong aversion to the sensory experience (duh)!
My neurologist calls this “Sensory Disorder of Smell” or “Osmophobia”.

Triggers

One needs not a medical degree to know that the identification and avoidance of triggers are a primary means of managing migraine.  Good luck with that if you have the same trigger as I. At present, the only certain method I know of to avoid fragrance is total isolation from people who are not completely fragrance-free. People are the primary carriers of fragrance, although some folks douse their pets in it also.

Ineffective Accommodation for Fragrance Sensitivity

In lieu of a fragrance-free workplace policy many employers choose to “allow” an individual with sensitivity to approach co-workers, explain that their fragrance causes a health problem, and request “consideration”.  In my opinion, except in rare circumstances, communicating directly with co-workers about one’s sensitivity to fragrances is inadvisable, ineffective and if it becomes your only option in order to work, is a potential violation of your civil rights. Any employer or employee considering this approach should obtain legal consultation.
Many factors combine to render this “accommodation” ineffective.  this post primarily reflects the problems with “communicating” directly with co-workers about it. .

  Alienation/Stigma/Harassment
  • Personal odor is a touchy subject. Most people in our culture consider a discussion of personal care products and odor offensive. Frankly, most folks are personally insulted when told that their “signature scent” or their deodorant is making you sick. It’s a good way to lose rapport with colleagues. Most supervisors have realistic fears of discussing the topic.
  • Fragrance chemicals are mixed to be as addictive as possible. Chronic perfume users are known to become angry and resentful toward anyone coming between them and their drug of choice. In many settings the consensus is that wearing fragrance is a privately held right of the individual.  Remember the smokers’ rights movement?
  • It’s possible to offend and alienate people without speaking. A co-worker once complained to management that I “sniffed” him. I had been (discreetly I thought) assessing whether I could safely board an elevator car with him. A friend of mine     received a reprimand after instinctively holding her nose when a colleague entered the room wearing a cloud of cologne. This was after management denied her request to wear a mask, (another situation clearly calling for legal advice).
  • It is a huge burden on the employee to “investigate” the source of toxic fragrance in an environment, and then address it with who they think is the offender. They’re asked to handle a sensitive task under handicapping conditions. Sounds like the opposite of accommodation doesn’t it? Sniffing out a “perfumer” causes me immediate head pain and problems seeing, thinking and speaking. My limbic system goes on high alert. Who can communicate well under such conditions?
  • How does one maintain a relationship with the cause of one’s pain?  From my perspective, perfume and scented aftershave lotion transform “nice” people into aggressive attackers who run skewers through my nasal passage to my brain. Naturally, I get an angry impulse to hit them or run, or both!  I have no appropriate words to describe my feelings for those who continue to wear perfume in full knowledge that it harms the health of others.
  • Singling out the sensitive individual to co-workers too often results in harassment. There are reports of co-workers spraying perfume or installing “plug-in” air fresheners or fragrance diffusers near the sensitive person’s cubicle. They may gossip about, ask embarrassing questions of and present “medical” opinions to the individual, usually in public. In one news story a woman reported a colleague wore perfume to eliminate her as competition for a promotion.
Ask Nicely  

In 2004 my request for a fragrance-free workplace was denied, ostensibly on the basis that my employer would be unduly burdened to implement an office-wide policy. Instead I was given the above-described “accommodation”. I was encouraged to “politely” explain my problem and ask co-workers to help me. Unfortunately I agreed to this arrangement and suffered for many year.  I finally realized that it wasn’t an appropriate option and asked that my employer provide me with a safe (fragrance-free) work station and/or effective support for telecommuting.

Complain?

In 2010, I finally filed an EEO complaint of discrimination on the basis of denial of a reasonable and effective accommodation. I found an excellent attorney specializing in EEO in my sector, and thoroughly educated her on my health issue. Although the judge appeared inclined to decide in my favor, I did not have the health or time to go through the entire hearing process.  I am prohibited from speaking about the outcome of my case, but I will say that I certainly did get better results from filing the complaint than when I asked “nicely” for my statutory rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Too little too late

June 2012 I was granted an enclosed, fragrance-free work station and had full capacity to telecommute as much as I needed. By then, the migraine disease had transformed from episodic to chronic. I also had severe, chronic anxiety. The stigma of my illness was now entrenched in the office culture and internalized in me. I became more isolated than ever and was passed over for advancement opportunities. Eleven months later my neurologist put me on medical leave for a minimum of a year.
Although not a source of legal advice, the Federally-funded Job Accommodation Network has resources to assist in identifying job accommodations for those with fragrance sensitivity and also migraine disease.
Bye for now,
Suki
P.S.  Please (I’m asking nicely this time) if you have used perfume or other products with fragrance in the past, it is now time to “fragrance-free” yourself and all those who share your airspace. If you need resources for this, just ask.

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From a Yellow Canary of the 21st century, living in our disabling biosphere

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