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How to Manage RA at Work

Medically reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP on January 23, 2018Written by Heather Cruickshank on January 23, 2018
manage ra at work

When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), joint pain and other symptoms can make it challenging to manage your work responsibilities. But in many cases, there are steps that you can take to cope with your condition on the job, while achieving your professional goals.

Take a moment to learn some strategies for managing RA at work.

Follow your recommended treatment plan

One of the most important things that you can do to maximize your productivity and comfort with RA is to follow your recommended treatment plan. Take medications as prescribed and let your doctor know if you experience unwanted side effects. Get regular low-impact exercise, eat a well-balanced diet, and take steps to manage your stress levels. Developing healthy lifestyle habits is important, especially when you live with a chronic health condition like RA.

If your current treatment plan isn’t working, make an appointment with your doctor. They might recommend changes to your medications or self-management habits. In some cases, they might encourage you to consider physical therapy, surgery, or other treatments.

Adjust your habits and workspace

If you find it difficult to complete day-to-day tasks at work, consider making an appointment with an occupational therapist. They may be able help you develop new techniques that put less strain on your joints. They may also encourage you to adjust your workspace, tools, or garments to accommodate your needs. In some cases, they might recommend assistive devices.

For example, your occupational therapist might encourage you to invest in:

  • an office chair with good back and arm support
  • large pens or mechanical pencils with cushioned grips
  • spring-action scissors, shears, or loppers that automatically open the blades after each cut
  • wheeled carts or carriers for moving large or heavy objects
  • compression garments or splints to reduce pain and swelling and support your joints
  • a cane or walker to help you get around

It might also help to wrap foam, cloth, or tape around the handles of tools and other objects that you use on a day-to-day basis to make them easier to grip.

Take regular mini-breaks

Jobs that involve repetitive movements can take a toll on your joints and muscles, especially when you have RA. Working at a desk can also leave you feeling stiff and sore.

To help alleviate some of the strain, try to take a short break every half-hour or so to change your position and gently stretch. Even a few seconds of gentle stretching or walking around your workspace may help limit your discomfort. As an added bonus, regular mini-breaks might help sharpen your focus and ward off fatigue.

Ask for accommodations

In many places, businesses over a certain size are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Depending on your diagnosis, job, and location, you might qualify for accommodations. For example, you might be able to have your workspace or dress code modified to make it more ergonomically friendly. In some cases, you might be able to negotiate more flexible hours or get permission to work from home.

Ask your doctor or occupational therapist for more information about your legal rights in the workplace. If they don’t know the answers themselves, they may be able to direct you to someone who does. You can also make an appointment with your employer’s human resources department or management to learn about their policies for accommodating employees with disabilities and special health needs.

Set realistic expectations for yourself

Sometimes it can be difficult to acknowledge or accept your limitations when you have RA. But taking honest stock of your condition, abilities, and needs is important. It can help you set achievable goals in your professional life, without sacrificing your health. It can also help you recognize when it’s time to make a change.

If your current job is no longer manageable, make a list of your employment and health needs. In some cases, you and your employer might be able to accommodate your needs by making changes to your workload or environment. In other cases, you might need to look for a new job or take time off work. Depending on your position and where you live, you might qualify for medical leave or disability benefits.

The takeaway

RA can pose challenges at work, especially when your symptoms act up. To manage your condition and work responsibilities, it’s important to be proactive. Try to work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that provides relief. Consider ways in which you can adjust your day-to-day habits and work environment to reduce strain on your joints. And learn about the support services and accommodations that may be available in your workplace and community. In many cases, it’s possible to achieve your professional goals while living with RA.

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