Work is important, especially when you have a chronic disease. Your rheumatoid arthritis may change how you live your life, adding an impressive list of medications to your daily "diet," making everything from getting dressed to making coffee more complicated and require compromises in your social activities, your sleep schedule and your sex life, but going to work is a welcome dose of normal. It pays the bills, sure, but also reminds you that underneath it all, you're still the same person. So, we keep going out there, until we absolutely can't.
RA affects all areas of your life, including your job. The 2008 GeneRAtions study showed that the disease interfered with work in some way for over 90% of people living with RA. Such interference runs the gamut from minor to major, including increased pain levels, changes to your dexterity and strength, preventing you from performing the task of your job, increased sick days and taking all your energy so the entire weekend is spent recovering just in time to go back to work again. The list goes on. At some point, we have all worried that RA will cost us our job, either because it may affect our performance or because of discrimination.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Coming out about having RA can be a challenge, especially at work. If you're worried about losing your job because of it, you have good reason. Historically, discrimination due to illness or disability has ranged from subtle to blatant, which is why the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists. Whether you are interviewing for a job or have worked in the same place for years, your employer or colleagues do not have a legal right to know your medical history. Furthermore, the ADA prohibits employers from firing or not hiring qualified people because of their disabilities. However, if you believe you have been discriminated against in employment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can provide assistance.
When deciding whether to talk about your illness at work, it can be helpful to think about "need to know," i.e., is the knowledge relevant to the situation. If you're managing relatively well with minor adjustments that do not require your supervisor's approval (Christine Miller posted examples here), it's probably safer to keep your diagnosis to yourself for as long as you can. However, there may come a time when your disease affects you to such a point that you need to be open about your situation. The Arthritis Foundation has an excellent guide on how to speak to your boss and if your coworkers are having trouble understanding what's going on, HealthCentral users have posted some great tips here.
Changing to Keep Working
If your RA begins to affect your ability to do the tasks involved in your work, losing your job does not have to happen. The ADA defines a qualified employee as someone who can perform the essential duties of the job, either with or without reasonable accommodation. Accommodation in a job can include making the job site accessible, restructuring the position, modifying work schedule or transfer to another position, as well as an ergonomic setup or assistive devices. For instance, because typing is very difficult for me, I am writing this using Dragon NaturallySpeaking, voice recognition software that allows me to dictate to the computer instead of using a keyboard.