Work and Arthritis
Living with arthritis means that sometimes arthritis might affect your work or your ability to work. We have put together some advice to answer some of the most frequently asked questions we hear from people living with arthritis, with the help of Consultant Rheumatologist and Arthritis Action’s Medical Advisor Dr Wendy Holden.
Do I have to tell my employers that I have arthritis?
Many people ask this question and worry about telling someone at work. If you are already in work and develop arthritis you do not have to tell your employers if you don’t want to, but things at work are often easier if you do tell someone – typically your manager or someone in your HR Department. If you work in a large company, then their Occupational Health Department can be very helpful and can often provide impartial advice and support.
What about if I apply for another job?
If you have arthritis and are offered a new job, you do not have to tell your employers that you have arthritis before the interview, but you do once you are offered the job. The only situation in which employers are allowed to ask about a medical condition or disability before making a job offer would be if certain disabilities would mean that you would not be able to do the job, for example visual impairment and driving.
What should I tell my employers?
Most employers will not know very much about arthritis, so it will be useful to explain how the condition affects you. This could include speaking about pain, how the condition can be variable, including flares and fatigue, and also explaining that you may sometimes need to have some time off to have appointments or tests. It will also be useful if you tell your employer the type of things that you might need help with for example lifting, or practical adjustments at work.
What will my employers do?
Your medical conditions are private, and your employers should not share your details with anyone who does not need to know.
Often just speaking to your employers and explaining your difficulties can mean that they can make simple adjustments that can really help.
If your employers know that you have arthritis or a disability, they are legally required to make what are called “reasonable adjustments” to allow you to continue in your role. Sometimes this may be difficult, for example if you have to work standing up and have problems with pain in your knees or feet, but sometimes simple adjustments can make a really big difference, for example allowing you to park closer to work. Sometimes employers will ask your doctors what difficulties you may have and supporting letters can be useful.
It is illegal for your employer to discriminate against you because of your arthritis, and it is illegal for them to refuse to make reasonable adjustments. If this happens to you, you should ask for legal advice – an opinion from an employment lawyer can often be given for free.
What sort of help is available at work?
Employers could help with providing you with special seating or desks, wrist supports, or computer mouses which are easier to hold, or which can be used with either hand. Voice recognition software can also be useful if typing is difficult or painful. If expensive adjustments are needed to allow you to remain at work, you may be able to get a grant from the Government, called the Access to Work Scheme and this can help with new equipment, adapting the work environment or with travel costs to get to work. Access to work can also help with mental health support.
Employers may also be able to offer office space that is easier to access, or the ability to work from home full-time, part-time or when you are having a flare. They may also allow more flexible working patterns if you struggle with long days or at certain times of the day. Speak to your employer if you think flexible working would be helpful – they are often much more supportive than you may think.
Simple things like being allowed to take short breaks to get up and stretch or walk around or to stand up in meetings are usually easy to organise and cost nothing.
If you work shifts, it may be possible to arrange for more regular working patterns, for example working all nights or all days so that you do not have to struggle with the sleep problems that often come with changing shifts.
What if reasonable adjustments are impossible?
If it is impossible to carry out your current work after reasonable adjustments have been made, your employers should have a discussion with you about alternative roles that you may be able to do instead. Your employer is not obliged to change the fundamental nature of your work if this is impossible.
What if I work from home?
If you have arthritis or a disability and always or sometimes work from home, you should also make sure that you have a safe and comfortable working environment. This includes a comfortable chair and desk and could also include all the other adaptations that would be provided if you ere working from the office. Your employers should also provide these for you, as can Access to Work.
Make sure that wherever you are working, you take short breaks to get up and walk around and try to get out in the fresh air for a walk to break up the day. Try not to spend long periods staring at a computer screen to avoid dry or irritated eyes and invest in some preservative-free eye drops if you have problems.
I do a very heavy manual job and am struggling with my joints. What should I do?
The fitter you are, the better able you will be to cope with heavy work, but sometimes joints can just hurt with heavy work. Your employers are also legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to help you remain in work, including providing help with heavy lifting if needed.
Make sure that you are careful with lifting and handling and pay attention to health and safety advice. Your Occupational Health Department may be able to offer you more advice.
What if I am unwell?
Everyone sometimes has to take time off from work because they feel unwell, so don’t feel guilty. Stay in touch with your employers and colleagues and if possible, let them know when may be able to get back to work. After a long absence, a phased return is often sensible and easy to arrange.
Try to keep moving and stay active if you are home and try to keep to a healthy diet but look after yourself too – get plenty of sleep and rest when you need to.
Should I carry on working?
If you can work and you want to work, then having arthritis should not stop you. If you are really struggling at work because of your arthritis and can afford not to work, then perhaps it would be worth thinking about working fewer hours or trying a physically easier job. Voluntary work on your own terms is always an option and the National Council on Voluntary Organisations can help you find a charity that fits your values and personality.
If you have to work but are struggling because of your joints, it can be tricky to know what to do, especially if you have been in the same job for a long time. Working fewer hours might be an option or switching to more flexible work patterns with less travelling can help, but ultimately you may need to find another job.
Don’t rush into anything too quickly and take time to think about your skills and abilities or to think about learning a new skill or retraining in something that you may have always wanted to do. Your local Job Centre will be able to help with advice on work and information on disability-friendly employers.
Read here for more on arthritis and disability benefits.