I have a job and I have arthritis: Now what?

Arthritis and work: no doubt about it, that’s a tough subject for many people living with arthritis. Pain and fatigue can affect you and your work, and your work can affect your joints and energy levels. You might feel like you’re on your own—but remember, two-thirds of Canadians with arthritis are of working age. Work is obviously important for making a living, but also for emotional well-being as well. “People tell us that work is good for their health when they have arthritis because they’re doing something interactive and not at home focusing on the pain, so people are very motivated to keep working,” says Monique Gignac, senior associate scientific director and senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, since there are so many different kinds of arthritis and different kinds of jobs, there are some proven ways you can successfully navigate this tricky terrain.

Be real about your treatment plan

Your treatment plan needs to take your work life into account, or you won’t be able to commit to it fully. For example, if you have a desk job but find that regular physical activity helps you cope with arthritis symptoms, then you need to build plans for exercise or stretches into your workday or after hours.

Talk to an expert

There are often workarounds for workplace conditions that worsen joint pain. Your health-care team can help you figure out how to sit at a desk properly, adjust your vehicle seat, get in and out of your vehicle, change your body position if you stand for long periods, the correct work station height for different tasks, choose the right shoes, lift safely and more.

Be a planner

You can include self-care at work without disrupting your day. Some real-life examples: set a timer to remember to change positions or stretch, use a speaker phone for calls when possible so you can do hand or foot exercises, use an ice pack or do simple stretches on your break, alternate tougher tasks with easier ones.

Evaluate your energy

Try using an activity diary to track your energy levels throughout the day. After a week, you can see if there are better ways to organize your tasks and pinpoint areas that need attention (for example, if you give it your all at work but are too wiped out to engage with friends and family during your downtime, or if afternoons rock but mornings are rough).

Try a tool

Key extenders, a rolling suitcase, a pen grip, anti-fatigue mats, hand splints, knee braces, an elastic band wrapped around a doorknob…there are lots of different tools that can make it easier and safer for you to protect your joints.

Consider speaking up

Talking about arthritis at work can be scary—many people are, understandably, concerned about being seen as unable to do their jobs or being resented by co-workers. On the other hand, if you are having trouble and your employer and colleagues don’t know why, or your health is affected by your work environment, those aren’t great situations either. If you do decide to talk about your arthritis, do your prep work first. Decide who to talk to (employer, human resources, union representative) and what your main two or three messages are. Be clear on what you’re asking (a different schedule, a workstation adjustment) and practice first with a friend or family member.