Let’s not think about the workplace for a moment. Let’s think about life outside of work … about life in general. Have you noticed how people seem to be getting more allergic? How there’s more people with asthma; especially children? How the mere smell of foods, such as peanuts, can send someone to hospital? We all exist in a very polluted world – water pollution, chemicals & preservatives in our food, and of course the topic of this website – indoor air pollution.

Have you ever thought about how your workplace is changing? We spend 1/3 of our day at work. Do people seem to be more stressed? Feeling unwell?

Here are some considerations for how the issue of scent sensitivities could become one of your biggest challenges in the workplace:

sick-woman-nose-blow1)     Feeling sick affects productivity.

Continuous sickness leads to a variety of insurance claims (of a physical or psychological nature). Or employees leave – either because they’re too sick to work for you or fed up battling for a safe place to work. You could be losing a great employee this way, plus you could later be faced with a law suit or human rights claim.

law-image2)     This is a human resources issue related to “accommodation”:

  • Employers have a duty to accommodate – and both the employee and employer have obligations and rights in this process. Mishandling this accommodation issue can result in litigation, various insurance claims, a human rights claim, or all of these.
  • This is one of the few “accommodation” issues which necessitates the cooperation of other employees. This makes accommodating scent-sensitive employees more difficult.
  • Even if you enact a scent-free policy, it necessitates continuous vigilance. The creation of the policy is the easy part; adherence and enforcement are the hard part. This requires education and consequences to ensure that employees (old and new) as well as visitors adhere to the policy.

conflict management

3)     Conflicts between employees on this issue negatively impact the workplace atmosphere and worsen when they extend beyond the employees originally in conflict.

Some of the results of these workplace conflicts are:  staff turnover, loss of productivity, a decrease in workplace enjoyment, managerial time spent intervening on the issue, etc.

4)     Whether it’s suggested by the employer or the employee, a “wait and see” approach is detrimental.


Keep in mind, that some sensitive employees will minimize their symptoms because either:  they themselves don’t understand their sensitivities or because they don’t want to ‘draw attention to themselves/rock the boat’. This is especially likely to happen when someone just develops a scent-sensitivity.  Ongoing exposure to the offending scent often causes worsening of symptoms and/or new symptoms to develop. The longer the scent-sensitive employee is exposed, the more likely that their sensitivity will develop into a disability.

25743793_m5)     The number of people with scent sensitivities is growing and women are the most affected.


Absenteeism and Presenteeism

businessman-holding-pill-at-deskStatistics Canada’s Analysis of Absenteeism (June, 2009) examined absenteeism rates in Canadian workplaces between 1999-2009 and found that the key factors for personal reasons for absences were:

  • Job stress;
  • Working conditions;
  • Family obligations.

Regarding the “Duty to accommodate” legal standard, there’s a consistent pattern in case law in recent years that holding disabled employees to the attendance norms of other employees is discriminatory and inconsistent with the duty to accommodate*.

Presenteeism – refers to employees being on the work site, but their thoughts are elsewhere or they’re just not working effectively. Everyone has been in the situation where they are sick at work.  How productive are you then?

*Source:  The Duty to Accommodate & Disability Management by Barbara Humphrey ©2013 Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd.

Group Benefits/health care premiums

Kudos if you’re an employer that offers group benefits for your employees. Chances are that you’re shouldering all the premiums for the benefits plan. You’ll be indirectly paying for all those medications related to indoor air pollution – for headaches, asthma, and hypertension – to name a few. (Stress manifests itself in both mental and physical health, leading to absenteeism and presenteeism.)

Worker’s Compensation

laminate-wood-flooringHere’s a possible Worker’s Compensation claim situation:  If you’re planning on a workplace renovation, please consider the off-gassing caused with new construction materials, carpets, glues, paints, etc.

You may find that you have an employee who didn’t even realize that they were scent-sensitive and suddenly you have Worker’s Compensation claim on your hands because illness developed at the workplace. If you are planning a renovation, you’ll definitely want to inform employees ahead of time and encourage proactive measures to mitigate (allergic) reactions however they may manifest themselves in individuals.

If you’re planning on renovations, contact Scent-Smart to get connected to construction experts who can advise you on material considerations. Everyone knows that renovations are a huge expense to a company, but something like inexpensive tile carpeting could off-gas for years, causing health issues in employees that may not appear for years. A few hundred dollars extra for less toxic carpet, could save your employee’s health and prevent future claims and rising premiums.

Short Term and Long Term Disability – premiums & claims

sinus-painImagine you have a health issue which relatively few people have. You are sick or disabled by it. The conventional medical system provides very little help. Getting a definite diagnosis in itself may have been a challenge. You don’t understand your situation very well; how can your family, friends, co-workers or your employer? The conventional medical system is ill-equipped to help. It’ll take months to see a specialist and you’ll have to travel to a major city to do so. It’s a vicious cycle – you’re fearful, your stress levels rise, you’re getting sicker. Now you’ve seen the specialist and other than telling you what you are allergic to and to avoid it, they can’t do anything else for you – ‘good luck & goodbye’ – Well this is a sample of the realities faced by scent-sensitive employees.

Short-term disability can easily turn into long term disability if the employer, scent-sensitive employee, and other employees are not working together cooperatively to manage or solve the health issue.

Disability management is the most frequent and complex accommodation challenge facing employers, specifically absenteeism management and return to work issues.

*Source:  The Duty to Accommodate & Disability Management by Barbara Humphrey ©2013 Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd.

In 2005, mental disabilities related to stress and depression were the leading cause of disability in the labour force. [Source:  Global business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, 2006].

Human Rights complaint

human rightsA human rights complaint could be made against the employer based on:

  • the “duty to accommodate up to the point of undo hardship”; and/or
  • “discrimination” based on illness, disability, or even perceived disability.

In Canada, successful human rights complaints are not very costly from the perspective of the awarding of financial compensation for either ‘General Damages’ or ‘Special Damages’, however, hiring lawyers to defend your position will cost you.

Is reputation important to you? If you can successful settle with your employee at the Mediation Phase, that’s great because everyone’s confidentiality is maintained. If mediation isn’t successful, then the case goes to court and becomes a matter of public record. If the court finds you to have violated Human Rights legislation, it will affect your company’s reputation and could easily be found via online searches, especially if it captures media attention.


23056294_sA civil court lawsuit would apply to employment law, a dispute for example, related to (improper) termination. A lawsuit will be a much more costly and drawn out process than a Human Rights Commission complaint. It can be further complicated if insurance companies are involved (in disputes involving long-term insurance claims). You’ll likely outlast your former employee in terms of your greater means to weather through the financial costs and time associated with legal battles, but who wants a lawsuit???

win winRecent Canadian cases demonstrate increasing liabilities to employers who fail to deliver on the “duty to accommodate”. Some of the highest and recent damage awards have concerned infringement of equality rights for individuals with mental health or non-evident disabilities*. Employers without the knowledge of their obligations and rights are vulnerable. In the situation of a scent-sensitivity, there is a lot of individual variability in the type, frequency and severity of reactions. Furthermore, the “duty to accommodate” is meant to be a collaborative process of rights and obligations for both the employer and employee. An employer who makes decisions without collaborating or consulting with their employee is at risk for not meeting their “duty to accommodate” obligations.