How You Can Help Employees Succeed

What you as a manager should know about arthritis and how to help your employees with it succeed.

Arthritis affects one in four adults in the United States, so it is very likely that some of your employees are living with this painful disease. As a manager, you can help them succeed at work by learning more about arthritis and what they need to do their job with less pain. 

What you think you know about arthritis is probably not the whole story.
  • Arthritis is not a single disease. It means “joint inflammation.” There are more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions.
  • People can have arthritis at any age, even children.
  • Individuals experience arthritis in different ways, based in part on what type of arthritis they have, what joints are affected, what other conditions they have as a result of arthritis and how well controlled their arthritis is by medications and lifestyle.
  • Osteoarthritis, historically thought of as “wear and tear” arthritis, often affects older employees, but it also can cause pain and limited function in younger adults.
  • Autoimmune forms of arthritis are systemic diseases in which the body attacks its own tissues. It typically creates pain and fatigue and may be accompanied by other health issues, ranging from heart disease and vision impairments to depression.
  • Arthritis is often invisible, which causes many people to question whether a person with arthritis is truly experiencing pain, stiffness, fatigue or other symptoms.
  • Arthritis is unpredictable; a person may feel fine and energetic one day and wake up in pain and be so fatigued that they can’t function the next.
  • There are no cures for arthritis.
  • There are, however, treatments that, for some people, can control the disease very effectively, so you might not even know they have arthritis.
  • Some medications used to treat arthritis require the patient to receive regular infusions, given in a doctor’s office, as well as regular medical visits.
  • These medications, as well as the disease itself in some cases, can cause the person to be more vulnerable to infections, such as flu, colds or COVID-19.
  • There are no truly effective treatments for “wear and tear” osteoarthritis except for joint replacement. Many patients resort to this major surgery when they can no longer tolerate the pain and loss of ability to do the things they love and need.
  • Like people with other conditions or disabilities, people with arthritis often face discrimination, especially because their disease is invisible and unpredictable.
How You Can Empower Your Employees

People with arthritis are just as capable and talented as any other employee. In some cases — but not all — an employee with arthritis might need a special piece of equipment or other accommodation to perform to the best of their ability. These may include:
  • Ergonomic adjustments, such as a footrest, sit-to-stand desk or dictating device.
  • ADA-compliant facilities, including restrooms and alternatives to stairs.
  • Time off for medical visits.
  • Flexible hours or the ability to work remotely.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers and managers to provide reasonable accommodations as needed (without creating undue hardship to the employer) to help a disabled employee succeed in her job. But in order for the employee to truly participate and contribute fully, managers won’t just accommodate her needs, they will create a welcoming work environment.

An employee with arthritis might choose not to reveal his arthritis to co-workers or managers. If he does confide in the manager, the employee might choose to discuss whether and how to disclose his arthritis to others on staff, but it is ultimately the employee’s decision.

The manager also can work with the employee to determine what reasonable accommodation will enable the employee to participate fully and productively. Accommodations should be provided without fanfare, but they also shouldn’t be secretive; especially if the employee has an “invisible” disease, like arthritis, providing accommodations in a secretive way may be seen as favoritism and foment resentment among other staff.

What You Should — and Shouldn’t — Say as a Manager

Q: If an employee has chosen not to disclose her condition and I notice that she is having a workplace problem, what can I say or do?
A: You can always mention what you have noticed and simply ask, “How can I help?” without mentioning disability or using the word “accommodation.”

Q: What should I NOT say or do?
A: In situations where it’s not clear whether a disability is causing a workplace problem, you generally should not mention disability or accommodations, but instead focus on what you’re seeing and ask how you can help.

Familiarize yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act rules related to medical inquires so you do not ask inappropriate questions. Avoid making negative comments about disability and accommodations. It could be interpreted as interfering with the employee exercising her ADA rights.

Q: If the employee seems to be struggling emotionally or is the subject of gossip among co-workers, what should I do and not do?
A: You can always ask “How can I help?” when appropriate. You also might refer the employee to available support, such as an employee assistance program (EAP), or report the situation to human resources.

You might want to report gossiping co-workers to HR or put an end to it yourself to make sure it doesn’t turn into harassment, which is a form of discrimination. Avoid engaging in gossip or speculation with co-workers.

Q: If the employee confides in me about his/her arthritis, what can I say or do to help and show support?
A: Depending on what the employee confides, this may need to be treated as a potential accommodation request. If so, you should follow company policy related to processing the request. If the employee just discloses his arthritis but indicates no accommodation is needed at the time, you can let him know how to request an accommodation if one is needed in the future. You might also need to report the disclosure to whomever is responsible for handling this type of information, such as HR. Also, make sure that the information is kept confidential.

It may be appropriate to specifically ask whether an employee needs an accommodation, for example, when you have a reasonable belief that an employee’s known disability is interfering with his job performance. However, many employers have a designated person or department that handles accommodations, and managers are instructed to notify that person or department when an employee might need an accommodation.

Q: If my employee is very open about his condition with me and co-workers and he asks for specific help or support, what should I do and not do to respond to the requests?
A: Some employers allow managers to process accommodation requests or informally provide accommodations. Other employers require managers to report all accommodation requests to HR. However, if the employee is asking for something that is provided to any employee who asks, you can just provide it.

Q: If a manager thinks an employee is exaggerating his/her pain or limitations just to get special accommodations, what should the manager do? What should the manager not do?
A: The ADA allows employers to require medical documentation when an employee requests an accommodation and the disability is not obvious or already documented. The person who has the authority to process an accommodation request can get medical documentation rather than making assumptions.

Do not make negative comments about an employee who has requested or is receiving an accommodation. If you have concerns that it isn’t warranted, raise your concerns with the department that approved the accommodation, not with the employee.

Q: If other employees believe a co-worker who has arthritis is getting special treatment unfairly, how should a manager handle it without violating that employee’s privacy?
A: You should be careful to not disclose that the employee has a disability or is receiving accommodations, per his ADA protections. Here are some suggestions cited in an article from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN):
  • If your company has a policy in place or language from its legal department for this situation, take guidance from that.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests the manager “…may explain that it is acting for legitimate business reasons or in compliance with federal law.
  • Similarly, you could explain that the company’s policy is to assist “any employee who encounters difficulties in the workplace,” and when those difficulties are personal, the company policy is to respect their privacy.
  • Susan W. Brecher, of Cornell University, suggested in a webinar that managers simply say, “We [view] and treat employees individually and make considerations based upon good business reasons, which allows for privacy of each individual.”

Responses provided by Linda Batiste, principal consultant and legislative specialist for Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Find more information about employee rights under the ADA and workplace accommodations from the Job Accommodation Network.