How Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Patients in the Workplace

Many patients with rheumatoid arthritis feel their employers do not understand their condition.

Chronic diseases can have an impact on every aspect of life, including work. This remains true for patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who may have difficulty completing tasks or coming into the office during flare ups, according to a study conducted by the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) and the University of Manchester.

“It’s really interesting to see how the evolving workplace is affecting people with auto-immune conditions like RA,” said Matthew Bezzant, Policy and Public Affairs manager at NRAS. “As the adoption of flexi-working increases and new laws to protect employees come into place, there is still a need for companies to invest time understanding these conditions, especially as desk-based work is continuing to increase.”

Included in the study were more than 1500 patients with RA and adult juvenile idiopathic arthritis to determine how the condition has affected their career and the attitudes of their employers. NRAS previous conducted a similar survey in 2007.

In the new survey, 97% of patients reported being more open about their condition; however, an increasing number of patients feel that their employers do not understand RA and its symptoms, according to the study.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said that taking time off from work when feeling ill or during a flare-up was a serious or very serious issue they face at work, according to the study.

Respondents also indicated that a lack of support from their employer or manager was a serious problem. Another 1 in 4 patients said a lack of understanding from co-workers was another workplace issue they faced.

Although hundreds of thousands of patients around the world have RA, awareness for the condition is lacking, according to the authors.

Individuals with RA have been making gains in the workplace since the last survey. In 2007, 55% of patients with RA were employed compared with 63% in 2017, according to the study.

Despite employment gains, more than half of respondents felt they would be unable to work if their job became more physically or emotionally taxing. The authors said these findings suggest employees may need more support.

Approximately 39% of employees reported that their employer does not understand their condition. While this rate was 29.5% in 2007, awareness levels were found to be especially low among small and medium-sized companies, which may not have a human resources department, according to the study.

The authors also found that 41.5% of respondents have changed jobs since their diagnosis and an additional 15% had to stop working entirely. After their diagnosis, only half of individuals were offered flexibility or special accommodations, highlighting an area that needs improvement.

“Sadly, less than half of those surveyed were offered supportive changes in their last job; easy adjustments like flexible working hours, shorter days or special equipment,” Bezzant said. “Ultimately, a physical disability should not limit individual career success.”

The study indicated that RA may affect job security, with 48.5% of patients feeling insecure if their condition prevented working for a long period of time. Additionally, 39% of respondents had to take on a part-time job. The authors note that these findings may lead to anxiety and depression, which is another cause of lost workdays, according to the study.

“This research provides a unique insight into the experiences of young adults planning their career and early employment. Results indicate a lack of structured support within schools/universities for young people with chronic condition(s),” said researcher Suzanne Verstappen, PhD. “The results of this are very important and will inform patients, employers, health care professionals and policymakers about possible interventions in the workplace and future policies to prevent problems at work and job loss.”