If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you might find your work life is difficult because of pain, weak joints and muscles, or lack of energy. You can also find that work and RA present divergent scheduling demands: You can’t miss a doctor’s appointment, but you also can’t miss going to work.
But whether you work in an office setting or outside, it isn’t impossible to make your work environment compatible with your RA.
Think about who you’re going to tell
First, consider whom to inform. Not everyone at work needs to know about your RA. But you might want to consider telling your supervisor and the people you work with most closely.
Jenny Pierce of Wichita, Kansas, was diagnosed with RA in 2010. She works with a small team and decided to tell everyone. “Because I was the youngest staff member, my co-workers and management assumed that I was at the height of my health,” she says. Pierce knew she had to speak up. “I have a bad habit of making things into less of a big deal than they are. First, I had to get over my pride and tell my co-workers and boss that I have RA, and attempt to convey how serious that is. If you don’t tell them, they won’t know.”
It might be helpful to let the people you’re talking to understand how they’ll be affected while emphasizing how workplace modifications can help you perform your best. You can consult the Job Accommodation Network website to learn more about your employer’s responsibilities and your rights in the workplace. Some things to consider:
Your work station
If your job requires you to sit in front of a computer for the majority of the day, it’s important to have proper posture while sitting and typing. Your monitor should be at eye level. Keep knees level with hips, using a platform to lift your feet if necessary. Your wrists should reach straight out to your keyboard, not dangle or incline to reach the keys as you type.
The wrists are one of the most painful parts of the body when you have RA. Your office should be able to supply you with necessary assistive devices, such as wrist cushion supports and an ergonomic computer mouse. If you’re still having pain using a computer, ask your rheumatologist or physical therapist for their recommendations on wrist wraps and other supports.
Proper back support is critical to health and comfort. The back of your office chair should curve to match the shape of your spine. If your employer can’t supply a chair like that, consider arranging a cushion or a rolled-up towel at the small of your back to maintain proper posture.
If you talk on an office phone, you may find you squeeze its receiver between your head and shoulder. This wreaks havoc on your neck and shoulders and is especially bad if you have RA. Ask if your employer can supply you with a device that attaches to the receiver of your phone to hold it onto your shoulder. Alternately, ask for a headset or find out if you can use your phone’s speaker.
Some people with RA find that standing for part of the day instead of sitting for office work takes pressure off their sensitive joints. Standing desks are becoming more common, though they can be expensive, and your employer may choose not to invest in one. Some existing desks can be modified so you can use them while standing.
If you stand at work, whether at a standing desk or service counter, for example, take extra pressure off your spine and neck by allowing a slight curve in your lower back and keeping your knees straight but not locked. Elevate your chest slightly and keep your chin level.
Some people with RA describe foot pain so severe it feels like they’re walking on nails. This can be excruciating to endure anytime, but especially so if you have to stand for work. You might need custom-molded foot and ankle support or gel insoles for your shoes to properly support your arches and ankle joints.
Your workplace may be able to provide you with foam or rubber pads to reduce the impact of standing on hard floors for hours.
Taking care of yourself at work
When you have RA, it’s important to keep stress levels low and to eat well. For Pierce, stress reduction means meditating at work. “Two other co-workers and I have started to meditate for 10 minutes every afternoon,” she says. “Even though we don’t always get through without a phone call, that 10 minutes to lie on the floor and concentrate on my breathing is so great. I love having that flexibility.”
There’s no federal law governing breaks at work, but many states require work breaks if you work a certain number of hours. Most employers allow some break time. You may need to explain to your employer that RA causes you to take regular rest breaks.
The truth is, most of us could eat better. Having RA demands you eat optimal nutrition-loaded foods that are easy to digest. Plan nutritious meals and bring them with you to work. You should also pack healthy snacks such as vegetable sticks and fresh fruit.
As much as RA might make you want to pull the covers over your head every morning rather than face the day, work is a necessary part of most of our lives. In addition to providing financial sustenance and perhaps health insurance, it helps us form our identity and expands our community. Don’t let having RA interfere with your ability to do your best work. Consider telling your employer about your condition and work together to build a workplace that works for you.