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Can I Continue to Work With Arthritis?

How to Manage Your Work Environment When You Have Arthritis

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Updated June 09, 2014

Arthritis can impact your ability to work. People with arthritis must adapt their work situation to their disease. As arthritis becomes more severe, more adaptation may be required.

Relationship With Employer Is a Factor

Various circumstances determine whether you are able to continue working despite having arthritis. Certain factors are controllable, yet others are not. The most critical factors are the severity of your arthritis coupled with employer support. You can compensate for much of the difficulty caused by arthritis if a relationship with an employer is:

  • strong
  • communicative
  • respectful
  • honest

In contrast, a relationship with an employer or supervisor that is antagonistic or disinterested is unlikely to produce cooperative results.

Work Difficulty - Should You Be Honest?

How much you should tell your employer about the challenges of living with arthritis is a matter of opinion. Some people who fear losing their job choose to minimize and not divulge the whole truth about their arthritis. These people may create a facade which allows them to continue to work by:

  • not confessing the actual pain level
  • going to work when they should not
  • not wearing splints when they should

Other people believe keeping up a facade backfires -- it diminishes the severity of the problem in the eyes of the employer. It's hard to fake it to make it.

Type of Work Must Be Considered

A certain level of productivity is expected of any employee. The ability to complete tasks and meet deadlines becomes more difficult with increasing disability. A large company with many employees may not be as concerned about individual productivity as a smaller company. The large company has enough people to balance each other out.

The exact nature of the job and what it entails will determine how much arthritis affects your job performance. A physically demanding job which involves lifting, carrying, walking, or a lot of standing would certainly be impacted more than a desk job. A job that is physically demanding may become difficult or impossible to keep over time.

Flexibility

Whether or not your job must be performed according to a schedule also is a consideration. If arthritis has caused you to miss a lot of time from work, or unexpected flares make you increasingly undependable, a job that operates on a tight schedule would be less than optimal for you.

Adapting Your Work Environment

It is possible for specific adaptations to be made in a workplace which would help maintain your productivity. Some of the adaptations may cost money. A company will be more likely to spend the necessary money if:

  • your work record is good
  • they feel you intend to stay employed by them
  • they feel you would be hard to replace

Changing your work environment to alter chair or desk height, changing the location of supplies, using electric staplers or pencil sharpeners, and other adaptations all serve to make work easier.

A later start-time, or a change in the lunch or break schedule also potentially make the day more workable. An occupational therapist can help assess your work area and offer valuable suggestions.

It is important to understand the Americans With Disabilities Act and to know your rights and understand the reasonable efforts your employer must make to accommodate your needs.

Disability

Studies have shown the impact of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) on employment. Over one-half of individuals with RA who worked before the onset of the disease stop work within 10 years of diagnosis (Yelin et al.,1980). Those individuals with work autonomy and flexibility are more likely to remain in employment after the onset of RA (Yelin et al.,1980).

Individuals in professional or managerial occupations are considerably more likely to stay in employment after the onset of RA (Callahan et al., 1992). In one study in the U.S., it was revealed that men with RA had 48% and women 27% of the income of those without the disease (Mitchell et al., 1988).

The Bottom Line

In order to continue working, you must stick with your course of treatment so the disease will be well-managed. You must be working at a job where you can still function and be productive within your set of physical limitations. It is also imperative to have the support and understanding of employers and co-workers.

Sources:

Arthritis and The Workplace, Arthritis News 1990, by Franca Leeson

Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis, 1996, Stanton Newman et al.

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