Rheumatoid Arthritis

Work and rheumatoid arthritis

Although some people prefer to stay at home, most people work, not only for money, but because working gives a sense of achievement, a structure to the day, social contact and social status. But people with arthritis may have particular problems which affect their working lives.

Some people told us that arthritis had ruined their careers. Many thought that employers didn't always understand that the symptoms of arthritis fluctuate; that one day they might be feeling well but the next day too ill to cope with work.

Some people's working conditions were very difficult. One man who needed to work on building sites said using ladders made his RA worse and he tried to avoid them. One woman had to walk up three flights of stairs to work because there wasn't a lift.

Some people had decided not to work, or had changed career because of their arthritis. Others had given up work, retired early or had changed jobs. For example, a housewife had been disappointed that she had not been able to work as an artist. A young woman had planned to be a teacher, but then decided to take a less stressful job. Another woman decided to give up her part-time job at a school, because getting ready to go out became too much effort.

Some people described their frustration when they found they couldn't do their jobs properly. One woman had had to retire from her job as a laboratory assistant because she couldn't use the machines.

Work can be physically very demanding, and one man had to give up his job as a chef. As a result he felt shocked and depressed and had a nervous breakdown. A recently diagnosed woman who trained and worked as a horticulturalist was advised by her doctor to change her line of work because tasks such as digging and lifting heavy pots were aggravating her condition. 

Other people too hated the idea of not working and felt guilty that they were claiming state benefits (see 'Financial implications and financial support'). Some people considered work a priority; they sacrificed their leisure time to keep working by using it to recover from work, e.g. in the evenings and at weekends.

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Many other people had reduced their working hours because of illness. Some had found jobs with flexible hours or chosen self-employment. One woman gave up her full time job as a human resources director and worked freelance, so that she could control when she worked and how much she worked from day to day.

A 58 year old man found it hard to cope with his job as a carpet fitter as it was heavy work, but was determined to carry on. He was self-employed so he managed by working one day and resting the next, thus giving his inflamed joints time to recover. A cleaner also said she struggled and was a lot slower but felt it kept her sane.

Some people had had better experiences. Companies and organisations can often adapt the working environment or hours worked to make it easier for people to continue. Occupational health departments had often helped people. One woman talked about the 'Access to Work' initiative, which provides advice and practical support to disabled people and their employers to help overcome work related obstacles resulting from a disability. She said she had obtained voice activated software for her computer, an ergonomic keyboard, and a special telephone headset. This scheme also provides financial support for additional work related transport costs. 

A bank manager said that after his ankle operation his company had given him a motorised scooter to help him get around while at work. He thought companies could re-claim money for such items against tax.

Some people we interviewed indicated that their families have helped a great deal both by providing the practical and emotional support they need to manage their everyday working routine. Just before her diagnosis (2007) a young teacher applied for another job in a school in her home town and says that it was the best choice she could have made because she now lives at home and has the support of her family. 

Most companies understood that people had to take time off for regular GP, physiotherapy and hospital appointments and for in-patient treatment. However some people felt taking time off as annual leave rather than sick leave helped them keep their jobs. A retired physiotherapist said that although she had had two or three months off work after each operation, the NHS had been supportive and had kept her job open for her each time.  Sandra was in hospital for treatments and she was off work for several weeks. Her employers have been supportive but while they accepted for her to   work part-time they did not accommodate her wishes of working afternoons instead of mornings.

People are often unsure whether or not to tell future employers about their arthritis at interviews for a new job for fear of prejudice. Some people were sure that they had suffered discrimination when applying for jobs. One man had worked for the same company for many years so they understood his limitations but he didn't tell his next employers at the interview and they seemed unpleasantly surprised when they found out. One young woman says that if you are disabled and meet the minimum criteria for the post potential employers have to give you an interview. She advices other young people with RA to include in the application form that you are disabled especially if you really want the job.  

One woman, however, thought she had got her job because of her illness. She pointed out that some companies employ people with arthritis because they have to employ a certain quota of disabled people. She also said that certain organisations had helped her to find work.

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Some people felt that discrimination occurred in the work place affecting their annual gradings and chances of promotion. Sometimes they experienced bullying by co-workers which included comments about their ability to do the job and time off for treatments. Educating colleagues and employers about RA sometimes helped. Several people who had given up work had found fulfilment by studying part time at colleges, night classes and through the Open University.

Several people we interviewed made the point that public organisations like the NHS, schools, local councils and universities made good employers. One young woman who works as a part-time nurse explained that during her second pregnancy the hospital accommodated her health needs and allowed her to work fewer hours. Another young woman who works at a university said that she has never encountered any problems when taking time off to go to hospital appointments and thinks that things are different in the private sector. A school teacher recently diagnosed (2007) indicated that her school allowed her to start late on the days she didn't have any lessons first thing. 

Last reviewed August 2016.

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