Work and arthritis

work and arthritis

What is this leaflet about?

Joint problems are very common and can affect anyone at any age, including many people of working age. This may include people who are in work, looking for work, temporarily off sick, or hoping to return after a long period away from work. Most people will continue with their plans but, for some, the decision to continue working or to return to work will need a lot of thought and discussion.

This leaflet is aimed at helping you to sort out any problems, by asking the right questions of yourself and others.

What sort of problems?

Well, mostly practical ones, but don’t forget most people have instances of joint pain at some point in their lives. However, thankfully, only a small proportion have damage to their joints which might cause them to stop work. ‘Arthritis’ is a term used to cover a very wide range of conditions which may involve one joint, many joints, the spine or any combination of these. The sorts of symptoms arthritis causes are pain, stiffness and tiredness, all of which can vary – over the day or over months. There is no single pattern, and each person’s experience of arthritis is unique. This can make juggling home and work life a challenge and therefore deserves some very careful consideration.

You and/or your employer may be anxious about your performance at work. The following questions are important to consider:

  • Do you find you have to allow yourself extra time to do some jobs?
  • Does the stress of your job make your arthritis flare?
  • Do you find you don’t have the stamina to work like you used to?
  • Are there some parts of your job you find difficult or can’t manage any longer?

If you have answered yes to some or all of these questions you may benefit from some advice or extra support at work. It is better to seek help sooner rather than later as often the correct ergonomic advice or support will help you do your job better and more comfortably.

What can I do?

The first step is to try to sort out what is causing the problem, either on your own, with the help of a friend or colleague, or with outside help. Ask yourself some further questions:

Is it something really simple and obvious?

For instance, if reaching for the telephone causes you shoulder pain, then move the phone or, if you use it a lot, ask for a headset. If necessary, explain to your manager, and ask to have a longer telephone cable. Moving the phone won’t cure the problem with the shoulder, but it will make life much easier and less painful for now.

Perhaps repeated movements or your working position cause pain or discomfort. Try mixing the activities and don’t do one thing for too long. Most difficulties are temporary and, once recognised, can be sorted out by a ‘trial-and-error’ approach. Don’t underestimate your own abilities to find a common-sense solution. Only you know how you feel, and what pain and discomfort you are experiencing.

‘I saved up jobs to save walking. I took spare shoes and changed if my feet were hurting. I put my feet up at lunchtime instead of running about doing the shopping.’

Is it the sort of difficulty where you need your colleagues’ or employer’s assistance?

For instance, do you find the mornings particularly difficult – could you come in to work later and work later at the end of the day? Flexibility in working hours or in the different things you have to do at work can make a big difference to how you cope. Try talking things over with your manager or work colleagues.

‘I went in very early and built up hours so that if I didn’t feel well enough I could just take some time owing and didn’t have to take time off sick. It also meant that some weeks I only needed to work four days.’
‘I tried to cope but my fingers were so painful. A friend helped out. She lifted and fed the papers into the printer. I hadn’t got the speed or the strength. I got by with help.’

If you cannot work out what is causing the difficulty and would like some assistance…

Talk to your manager and together ask for a ‘workplace assessment’. This could be arranged through the Occupational Health Department of the company (if it has one), an occupational therapist or physiotherapist (via your GP or hospital), or through the Employment Service’s Disability Service Team (DST). Disability Employment Advisers (DEA) are part of this team and can be contacted through the local Jobcentre or JobCentre Plus office. The DEA can offer advice and administers special schemes such as Access to Work, which can grant some of the costs of equipment or adaptations for people who have difficulty working because of their arthritis.

If you are not currently working, your DEA can give you advice about training opportunities and local employment vacancies. The leaflet ‘Make it Work – a Guide to Specialist Services for Disabled People’ is available through DEAs.

Disability Discrimination Act (1996)

The DDA makes it unlawful for employers with 15 or more employees to treat a disabled person less favourably than anyone else because of their disability, in terms of recruitment, training, promotion and dismissal. It also requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to working practices or premises to overcome substantial disadvantage caused by disability.

You can find out more about the DDA by contacting the Disability Rights Commission Helpline.

Your decision about your working future

Do not make a hasty decision about something as important as work. You may be going through a particularly difficult patch, either with your arthritis, or with your job, or at home. Be positive. Things may improve given time and patience. You may find, for instance, that if you have recently started a new treatment it may take several months before it is fully effective. You may begin to adjust, and tasks which have been problematic become easier to perform. Given time you may feel less tired and stressed.

You need to be clear in your mind about two important questions:

  1. Do I want to work?
  2. Do I need to work?

Most people, if they think about it, work not only for money, but also because working gives a sense of achievement, structure to the day, social contact, and social status. However, these things are not of the same importance to everyone, and some people would much prefer to be at home. Juggling home and work is only going to be rewarding if you want to work. However, for many people there is the financial reality of needing to work. So, what are your options if you want and need to work, have looked at simple solutions, discussed the difficulties with your colleagues, but still cannot imagine continuing in the same job? Firstly, check your financial situation, and do your financial homework before you make any decision or statement (see Table 1). Then think through each of the options outlined in Table 2, making notes and gathering information as you go. If necessary, take time out/off to consider your position. Try to find someone you trust and who can be objective to talk it over with. It is worth discussing the options with your GP at this point, and also seeking the advice of an occupational therapist. What do your partner and family think?

Table 1

Financial considerations
Check your contract or terms of employment.
Do you have permanent health insurance cover?
What is your sick leave entitlement?
Can you take early retirement on health grounds?
What benefits would you be entitled to if you did stop work?
How much do you/the family need to live on?

Table 2

Question/optionDiscuss with
Would more help at home take pressure off? (e.g. help with housework or shopping)Partner/family
Is the arthritis likely to get better/worse?General practitioner (GP)
Rheumatology team
What treatment options are available and what is their likely success?GP
Rheumatology team
Working fewer hours/job sharingEmployer
Change of job within same organisationEmployer
Working from homeEmployer
Retraining for lighter workEmployer
Careers service
Disability Employment Adviser
Stop work/early retirementSee Table 1

The final answer may not be perfect, but it needs to be a positive one made on the basis of all the best information you can muster. It needs to be the right decision for you taken at the right time, and supported by those around you.

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