Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects more than 1.3 million Americans today. This autoimmune disease is an inflammatory type of arthritis that attacks the joints. The symptoms of RA can include:
- chronic pain
- impaired mobility from joint damage
- hand stiffness
These symptoms can create specific work challenges for people with RA. According to Marcy O’Koon Moss, senior director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation, RA can create serious havoc in the work environment.
Challenges can include the following:
- needing to travel
- working long hours and difficult shifts that are difficult to cope with
- working scheduled hours with a disease that’s unpredictable
- needing to stand on your feet for stretches of time
- needing to stay still for stretches of time, which can create stiffness
These challenges are often on top of any medication side effects and time spent out of the office for doctor’s appointments. Your coworkers might also develop a negative perception of what they see, introducing an added layer of social challenges. If you take all of this into consideration, you can begin to see the minefield of challenges that people with RA have to navigate to continue working.
You can’t always control others’ perception of your abilities. You also can’t control when your symptoms flare. Because there are so many factors out of your hands, make sure you’re doing everything in your power to make your work life more manageable with RA.
What you say, how much you say, and to whom you say it can affect how people perceive you and your abilities. Strike the perfect balance and you’ll be better off, says Amanda John, 36. John works in business development in Charlotte, North Carolina and says she has faced this issue herself.
When John received her diagnosis and returned to work, she says one of the biggest challenges she faced was “knowing when to share and how to share, so that you give a realistic description without scaring them or having them doubt your ability to do your job or move up in the organization.”
One place you should be open and honest about your condition is the human resources office.
“They are great at helping you understand your choices with benefits and how to navigate deductibles,” John says.
HR staff may also be able to assist you in various other ways, such as adapting your work schedule and ensuring your workstation is set up to meet your needs. You’ll want someone to know exactly what you’ve been facing behind closed doors, especially if you may need to take an extra day off.
April Wells, 50, who refers to herself as a “professional geek” in Cleveland, Ohio, faced this head-on with her boss and coworkers. She was diagnosed six years ago and gets a biologic infusion monthly.
“That means that for half a day once a month, I am totally and completely unproductive,” she says. Although she hates that she requires such special consideration, she knows her body needs it. She wouldn’t be able to work anywhere if she was without that medication.
The more your workspace is better suited for your RA, the happier you’ll be. In other words, workplace ergonomics are of utmost importance. The less your RA creeps into your day, the more efficient you’ll be as well.
If you work at a desk, John likes using:
- a back support pillow with heat packs
- Biofreeze pain reliever
- a tennis ball
- a fleece blanket
“That’s everything I could possibly need if I’m flaring,” she says.
She also requested a headset for her phone, because long phone calls can take a toll on her shoulders.
If a certain change to your workstation could aid your RA, whether it’s a headset, a different computer monitor, a chair, or something else, speak up.
“Most organizations will not question requests like these, especially if you put it in terms of ergonomics,” John says.
Wells likes wrapping rubberbands around pencils and pens to make them easier for her hands to grip. On the days her hands are especially hurting, she says holding a cup of hot coffee, tea, or soup can ease the aching.
Working as much movement into your day as possible at your job could prove a huge help.
Michelle Grech, 42, president of sports and entertainment marketing firm MELT, LLC, has had RA for 15 years. She tries to fit in some sort of exercise, even if it’s as simple as stretching, into each day. She also traded in her high heels for flats, which she says helped.
Try chair stretches if you aren’t sure how to work exercise into your workday. “Move your arms overhead and twist side to side,” Grech says. “Roll your ankles and wrists while seated and move your head and neck slowly from side to side and up and down,” she says.
Wells also likes chair yoga. “I can't really do weight-bearing poses on my wrists and hands, but I can do yoga breathing and gentle stretches to ease the tension and the stress,” she says.
If you’re sitting for hours at a time, just standing up every so often can stretch your muscles and joints. Walk to the break room, or the bathroom. “Anything to change up your routine,” Wells says.
Sometimes your body will be able to tell you exactly what it needs or how much it can take. John lets her body tell her how much of the following she needs on a daily basis:
Maybe a flare has caused you to be more fatigued than usual. If so, go to bed an hour earlier, Grech says. Sit during times you’d normally stand to save yourself the energy.
What about the days you’re so exhausted that you just can’t get out of bed? “Don’t,” Wells says. “Not listening to your body will make you less productive, overall, than you would have been if you had taken some downtime or been late once in a while,” she says.
If your employer isn’t willing to work with you or your job just doesn’t mix well with the demands of RA, you might want to consider looking for an opportunity that’s better suited to your needs.
“Try to avoid jobs that require too much travel, physical activity or being on your feet all day,” Grech says.
No one can take away all the challenges you face due to your RA. That doesn’t mean there’s not ample reason to think that you can continue working for as long as you’d like.
“RA is a manageable disease, and there are tremendous medicines and holistic treatments that can limit further joint damage,” Grech says. “This disease isn’t like it was when our grandparents faced it years ago. Science, awareness and support have made RA something that can be controlled and balanced in your life.”