Expert Tips for Managing Arthritis on the Job

Learn how to best manage the challenges that arthritis may impose in the workplace.

For most of us, a job is more than a paycheck. It’s how we use our skills, interact with others and contribute to society. “When arthritis tests your ability to do your job, your ability to support yourself and your family — and even your feelings of self-worth — can suffer,” says Saralynn Allaire, a research professor at Boston University’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. You can thrive in the workplace, and laws will help protect your rights. Experts identify common workplace challenges and offer advice for overcoming them.

Sitting Makes Me Stiff

Sitting all day was hard for software analyst Bryan Leopold, who has inflammatory arthritis in nearly every joint. His solution: an adjustable desk that allows him to stand as needed. Jim Herzog, an occupational therapist (OT) in Norwich, New York, gives these tips:

  • Get a device that raises and lowers your computer monitor and keyboard
  • Avoid poor sitting posture
  • Set alarms to remind you to stand or change positions
  • Do gentle exercises and stretches throughout the day

I'm Exhausted

Fatigue associated with arthritis can make it hard to work a full day. “Fatigue is a sign that you need to cut back, not just in your paid work, but also your unpaid work,” says Allaire. Pace yourself. If fatigue persists, tell your doctor. It could be a sign that your disease is not well controlled, and a change of medication may help.

I Miss a Lot of Work

Missing too much work could be grounds for termination, says Lex Frieden, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and an author of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). He recommends saving up paid time off for when you really need it. If necessary, the Family and Medical Leave Act may allow you to take unpaid time off. Allaire advises speaking with your employer about sick leave and finding ways to make up time missed before it becomes a problem.

The Commute Is Killing Me

If your job requires a long commute, talk to your boss about a flexible work schedule. Leopold says on bad days, he gives his boss a call and works from home. You can also ask to change your work hours to avoid heavy traffic – for example, working 7 to 3 instead of 9 to 5.

My Hands Hurt

Carolyn Kosanouvong-Walker’s job required her to type reports – a task made difficult by rheumatoid arthritis. Whether your job requires preparing foods, driving a forklift or using a computer, ergonomic work-arounds exist. Kosanouvong-Walker got a colleague to type the reports, which she dictated. Dictation software that types as you speak may also help. If using your hands is a must on your job, Carole Dodge, an OT supervisor with the University of Michigan Health System, recommends working with an occupational therapist. Orthotics can protect your hands, and devices — such as a light-touch keyboard, an ergonomic mouse or other ergonomic furniture and equipment — can reduce strain.

I'm Afraid To Tell My Boss

You aren’t required to reveal your chronic illness or disability. If you opt to tell your boss, offer solutions, says Herzog. Think of modifications that would help you do your job. That shows the employer ‘this is a person who recognizes their challenges and is working on dealing with them,’ he explains.

If you choose to keep your arthritis secret, the responsibility for any accommodations you need is yours, says Allaire. She suggests consulting an OT or the Job Accommodation Network, a service that offers free, confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability-related employment issues.

My Boss Won't Help

Employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations – such as special equipment or adjustments to duties – to help employees with disabilities perform their jobs. But accommodations won’t be the same for all companies. Smaller businesses have a smaller obligation, says Frieden. Giving your employer a letter from a physician or occupational or physical therapist might help. Mentioning your ADA rights should be a last resort, says Allaire; it may create an adversarial tone.

If your employer refuses accommodations, you can file a formal complaint, supply your own equipment, or look for a new job. The most efficient way to file a complaint is through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), says Frieden. The EEOC will attempt mediation. If that doesn’t work, they will determine if a law was violated.

I Can No Longer Do My Job

If it’s hard to find a job due to your condition, contact a rehabilitation counselor, available privately or through your state’s work rehabilitation program. They can help identify job or training opportunities. If you have a significant disability, these services may be covered by your state’s work rehabilitation program, says Allaire.

Employers can help their employees who have arthritis as well as their organization with free information and resources from the Arthritis Foundation. Learn more at Arthritis@Work.


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