It’s safe to assume we all have a gripe or three about work: Some jobs are physically taxing; others may have you stuck behind a desk all day or constantly traveling from one locale to another. Every career comes with a unique set of stresses, but when you have arthritis, even everyday job tasks become more challenging.
The data prove it.
People with rheumatoid arthritis with high disease activity missed an average of six days of work over three months, compared with less than four days missed among people with less active symptoms, according to research presented at the 2018 American College of Rheumatology annual meeting.
High disease activity also negatively influenced how productive people with RA said they were at work. In another survey of 235 people living with ankylosing spondylitis, half were unemployed and more than 90 percent attributed that to having AS — a form of inflammatory disease that primarily affects the spine.
And in another study, 65 percent of people with psoriatic arthritis said they have difficulty sitting or standing for long periods, which can make work difficult. Painful and stiff joints, weak muscles, or bouts of fatigue can make managing your work responsibilities much tougher. But with the right office setup, good planning, and support from your employer and colleagues, you can help keep your arthritis in check and career on track. Here are some strategies you can try:
1. First, take your meds
Simple advice for a simple reason: Good symptom control can mean better performance at work. With rheumatoid arthritis and other kinds of inflammatory arthritis, early and aggressive therapy with strong medications like DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs) may help symptoms at bay. A review of research published in the Journal of Rheumatology found that treating psoriatic arthritis with certain TNF-alpha inhibitors or newer medications, such as ustekinumab and apremilast, resulted in improved work productivity. Exercising regularly, eating healthy, and maintaining a healthy weight are also important to manage arthritis symptoms.
2. Prioritize your To-Dos
Think about the importance of work task, its deadline, and how you typically feel at different times of the day when you plan out what you need to do first and what can be accomplished later. Then pace yourself to make the most of your energy levels. If possible, break up bigger work tasks into smaller, achievable pieces and spread them throughout the day or week. Staying organized and focusing on your priorities can also help cut down stress — which can also make your arthritis symptoms worse — and keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
3. Cushion your keyboard
When much of your 9 to 5 is spent tapping away at a computer, your wrists will feel the effects. Wrist supports for a standard keyboard or wrist guards for you can help minimize pain and swelling, as can ergonomically designed keyboards. Another tip: Opt for a smaller mouse; it allows the base your hand to rest on the mouse pad so your wrist stays straight, which reduces stress. Other pointers to help set up your desk to lessen strain on your joints:
- Put your computer screen roughly an arm’s length away, with the top at eye level
- Get back support for your chair
- Set your feet flat on the floor or use a foot rest
- Consider stocking up on large pens, mechanical pencils with cushioned grips, spring-action scissors, and other adaptive devices to ease joint pain.
4. Take tiny breaks
Every 15 minutes or so, carve out 30 seconds to stretch, shrug your shoulders, take a few deep breaths, or stand up and wiggle a bit. You can set a recurring timer on your phone to remind you. Particularly if your job involves repetitive motion or sitting in one spot all day, taking a few seconds to change your position or move your body to get blood flowing can help limit stiffness and discomfort. Regular mini breaks might can also help fight fatigue. (Here are other tips to cope with arthritis-related fatigue.)
5. Seek support
Not everyone at work needs to know about your arthritis. But discussing your condition with your manager or HR department can help you get the support you need to do your job safely and successfully. You may also consider telling close or trusted colleagues. Knowing you have understanding people around you at work who you can talk to when symptoms flare or you’re having a tough day can be comforting. That said, medical conditions are private matters, says Nora Harsha, HR Knowledge Advisor for the Society of Human Resource Management. “You should not feel compelled to share with coworkers unless you wish to do so.” But do be prepared for questions that may arise if your boss makes certain allowances, such as more frequent or longer breaks, she adds. “Explain that a workplace modification was provided under a physician’s recommendation.”
6. Ask about accommodations
You may be able to modify aspects of your job to better suit your arthritis symptoms. Businesses with 15 or more employees are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities if it does not cause undue hardship in the workplace. Arthritis may or may not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Depending on your diagnosis and essential functions of the job, you might qualify for certain accommodations. For example, if you have a desk job, you might request an ergonomic chair or work station to help reduce pain and stress on your joints. Or you could negotiate regular rest breaks or working from home when your stamina is low. “Be prepared with accommodations ideas when you meet with an employer,” advises Harsha. You may also want to get a doctor’s note to support how an accommodation will help you safely perform your tasks, she adds. For a free consultation and resources for arthritis, including accommodation options for people with arthritis, visit the Job Accommodation Network.