Advice on managing arthritis and rheumatic disorders at work
Arthritis and rheumatic disorders can sometimes affect a person’s ability to work, but usually most workers can carry on working with the support of employers, the right care and supervision, or treatment if required.
Rheumatic and musculoskeletal disorders (RMDs), which include the various forms of arthritis, are a diverse group of diseases that commonly affect the joints, but can also affect the muscles, other tissues and internal organs. They affect 1 in 4 persons (more than 120 million people in the EU) and account for almost 30% of all disabilities. This is set to increase as the EU’s population ages.
Some symptoms of RMDs, such as stiffness, pain and reduced stamina can affect the performance of certain tasks at work. The range of severity is also variable, from mild discomfort to unbearable pain. Symptoms also tend to be sporadic and are ‘invisible’, meaning it is often difficult for co-workers, line managers and employers to understand the impact that the disease may have on work.
Conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are progressive, so the symptoms will worsen overtime. When symptoms become more severe, additional changes at work may be necessary. However, the rate and pace of deterioration depends on the person and the condition, and how well they can manage it, which will affect if and when additional changes are necessary.
What should you do if diagnosed with an RMD?
Should you disclose your diagnosis to your employer or not? You do not need to disclose your diagnosis if you don’t want to, but if you don’t disclose how work is affecting your symptoms, and vice versa, your employer is not going to know what help you might need, and this can result in presenteeism. Your employer is obliged to keep anything you tell them about your condition private.
If you do decide to tell your employers, plan how to do this beforehand. Schedule an appointment and decide what you will say about how your condition affects your work, what tasks you may need help with and what adjustments or support you think could be put in place to help you.
Learning how to self-manage your symptoms will be important. The two main challenges are pain and fatigue. Learning what triggers your symptoms, pacing yourself, relaxation and sleep management are among the coping strategies. Remember to prioritise your daily activities and take regular movement breaks and do exercise to keep mobile at work.
You should also talk to your healthcare team (your doctor or physiotherapist) about working, for example, and consider seeking support from an occupational therapist. With your permission, they may be able to write or speak directly to your employer about the support needed. Medical advice, if shared, can help determine the right adaptations.
What can you do as an employer to support workers with RMDs?
All employers should provide support to employees with medical conditions. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for workers with a disability and to take into account their needs when managing risks. A positive culture and open communication will help workers feel comfortable about raising a health condition and discussing what support they need.
Each case needs to be discussed with the individual concerned at the earliest opportunity. By talking to the worker about their needs, you may find that only simple, inexpensive changes are needed. For example, providing ergonomic equipment, adjusting working hours or modifying their tasks if they involve remaining in one position, standing, walking long distances etc.
Even with more physical work, it may still be possible to swap a difficult task with another worker, allow them some flexibility in how they do the tasks or make ergonomic improvements to reduce the load. Finally, there may be options for transferring people to less physical work that still uses their skills, with training if necessary. Such changes will need to be revisited over time to assess their effectiveness and adjusted in case of a worsening condition. Workers with an MSD may also need some time to attend hospital or specialist appointments, without them having to take standard sick leave.
As an employer, you may well have invested considerable time and resources in training the worker. It makes good business sense to continue reaping the benefits of that investment. Straightforward and inexpensive strategies can minimise the effect of RMDs on employment and early intervention and return-to-work programmes will reduce the chances of workers being absent for long periods of time.