Finding a Job and Working With Arthritis
Show an employer your strengths – and get the best out of yourself and your job.
Work. It’s good for your bottom line, but the benefits hardly stop there. Research shows that employment boosts confidence and improves mobility. One survey found that people with osteoarthritis (OA) who worked reported less pain than those with OA who did not.
Still, moderate to severe arthritis can create work hurdles even for those able to hold a regular job. A 2010 study in The Journal of Rheumatology found that adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were 53 percent less likely to be employed than those without it. Other studies have found that OA can slash productivity and increase pain in workers with physically demanding positions.
Of course, millions of Americans with RA, OA and arthritis-related conditions such as fibromyalgia have thriving careers. The key to overcoming some of the hurdles, says Saralynn Allaire, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, “is not in knowing your limitations – most people with chronic disease are all too familiar with those – but instead learning about and utilizing the myriad resources available to help you.” Here, experts suggest how to do that in three common scenarios.
If you’ve recently left a position – voluntarily or not – because your condition kept you from fulfilling its demands:
• “Be honest [with yourself] about the situation,”says Jackson Rainer, PhD, director of clinical training for the doctoral psychology program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Did you spend too much time on your feet, causing pain and fatigue that made you inefficient? Did the office frown on the time you took off for doctor visits? “Identifying what was wrong can help you move forward,” says Rainer, who specializes in psychotherapy for individuals with chronic and life-threatening illness. “It can be hard to admit your arthritis had a negative impact but having an accurate self-perception puts you back in control of your job search.”
• Come up with a list of must-haves. Do you need close access to a restroom? Flexible work hours? Some of these may be highlighted in job descriptions; others might require some detective work during the interview and hiring process. Make sure to get what you need so you can thrive professionally, physically and emotionally at your next job.
• Lead with your strengths. By law, you’re not required to disclose your medical condition – and you should not bring it up during interviews, advises Robert Hellmann, a certified career coach and adjunct professor at New York University in New York City. “Instead, talk about the positive things you bring to the table and why you’d be a valuable asset to the team,” he says. “Even if your symptoms are visible, you don’t want to convey the message that your arthritis is who you are or give a potential employer reason to wonder if you can do your job.”
If you’re concerned about post-operative pain or being less productive than before:
• Prepare with a physical therapist. “Give your physical therapist a detailed description of your day-to-day job tasks, and set goals and guidelines for being able to do those tasks again,” advises physical therapist Debbie Feldman, PhD, professor at the University of Montreal School of Rehabilitation. “Preparing your body physically reduces mental fears. That will give you the confidence to forge ahead when you return to the office.”
• Go slowly. Although you may want to throw yourself back into work to show that you’re a team player, “Don’t try to work through significant pain or pretend you’re at 100 percent when you’re not,” says Edmond Cleeman, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Consider working half-days your first week back. “If your doctor recommends using a cane or another assistive device, use it. Ice your joint if it’s sore, and make sure you get up and move around every half-hour to reduce the risk of blood clots and stiffness,” he says.
• Adjust your workspace. Ergonomic tools and accessories can make your workspace more comfortable, so you can be more productive. You might also want to hire an occupational therapist (OT) who can assess the physical and psychological components of your workplace and suggest adjustments and equipment. Some larger corporations offer this to workers, but employers are not required by law to hire an OT, even for disabled employees. To find a therapist, visit the American Occupational Therapy Association.
If you have a need or desire to re-enter the job market:
• Get your mind in shape. You want to show employers you know your stuff, even if you haven’t been working. “Read up on your industry. Attend a seminar. If you went to college, use the free career counseling services offered through your alumni association,” advises workplace consultant Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “That way, when you go on job interviews or meet someone who could be a work contact, you’re able to show you’re up to speed on your chosen career field.”
• Get on a schedule. If you haven’t been on a regular schedule, start now so you’re not overwhelmed when you begin work. “Start and end your day at the same time and give yourself time slots for specific duties,” advises Langerud. For example, search for jobs in the morning; have lunch and take a walk; then network and reach out to contacts in the afternoon.
• Rethink your résumé. “I tell everyone” – even those who have been out of work for a while – “to start résumés, cover letters and even conversations by showcasing the experience that’s most relevant, not most recent,” says Hellmann. No experience to highlight? “Contact local nonprofits related to your area of interest and say, ‘I can’t write you a check, but I’m really good at X, Y and Z. Is there a project I can help you with?’” says Langerud. Not only does volunteering give you references and a body of work to show potential employers, it also eases you back into employment.