A Beginner's Guide to RA: Workin’ for a Living
Work is important, especially when you have a chronic disease. Your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may change how you live your life, adding an impressive list of medications to your daily "diet," and making everything from getting dressed to making coffee more complicated. It may 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. Such interference runs the gamut from minor to major, including increased pain levels, changes to your dexterity and strength, preventing you from performing the tasks 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. Indeed, a 2010 study showed that will people living with RA are 53% less likely to work than the general population.
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. If you believe you have been discriminated against in employment, you can find more information at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you have experienced discrimination, you can also file a complaint with the EEOC.
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, you may wish to keep your diagnosis to yourself for as long as you can.
There may come a time when your disease affects you to such a point that you need to be open about your situation. In such a situation, you can speak to your supervisor directly, or you may want to involve their Human Resources Department. As well, our community has great tips on how to cope with coworkers who don’t understand.
Changing to Keep Working
If your RA begins to affect your ability to do the tasks involved in your work, it doesn’t mean that you automatically use your job. The ADA defines a qualified employee as someone who can perform the essential duties of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.
Accommodation in a job can include making the job site accessible, restructuring the position, modifying your work schedule, or a transfer to another position. It can also include an ergonomic setup or assistive devices. For instance, typing is very difficult for me so I write everything, including this post, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking, voice recognition software that allows me to dictate to the computer instead of using a keyboard.
You and your employer do not have to figure out job accommodation on your own. The federal Department of Labor has developed the Job Accommodation Network which assists jobseekers, employees, employers, and rehabilitation professionals in developing ways to keep people working. The website contains a section on ways to accommodate arthritis in the workforce, many of which are remarkably simple.
The best way you can help your body be able to go to work is to get treatment for your RA as soon as possible. Staying as healthy as you can includes eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of rest.
There may come a day that you'll need to explore your options for the future. Knowledge work (as opposed to physical labour) generally has more flexibility to accommodate an illness or disability. You may wish to explore possibilities for going back to school for further training.
If your disease affects your ability to work, you may want to look into FMLA to get occasional relief and time off. If that doesn’t help enough, it may be time to stop working and apply for Social Security.
What is your experience of working with RA?
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Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.