When you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), managing to get through your work day can be challenging enough. Fatigue, brain fog, pain, and the inability to do what is physically required of you can prove stressful.
However, there's another issue that can make or break your work life, and that is the attitude and perceptions of your colleagues. They have the power to make your time at work positive, more difficult, or intolerable.
The history books are filled with humankind's struggles to change the hearts and minds, attitudes and perceptions, of people who are intolerant of differences, whether they are physical, mental, emotional, social, or political. Things are changing. But in 2016, there are still cases where health and disability, and the right to have gainful employment free of persecution or discrimination, still exists.
Colleagues may lack understanding about the querulous nature of RA. They also may be resentful of any work accommodations that you may have received so that you are able to continue working.
Thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs
When you take the time to dig a little deeper into relationship issues, you'll learn there is more than one side to a story; your side, that of the other person and both of your histories. Your current thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs are influenced by your past experiences.
In every encounter, you are interpreting someone's body language, scanning for possible signs of danger. When they speak, you are making judgments about their tone of voice, the words they use, and how they use them. Much of your “safety system” is conditioned by past events. You learned to scan your environment for danger. This includes observing the people in your life to look for signs of disapproval, resentment, anger, and more.
It is important to keep in mind that this scan may not be accurate. The person you are “reading” may, in fact, be dealing with difficult issues, quite unrelated to what is going on in your life. The wrong body language can cause you to react, then put up defenses, or become more aggressive. That, in turn, can raise the “temperature” of the interaction.
Get curious. Gently question. Get to know a bit about the lives of your colleagues. Keep in mind that there may be times when you put a personal spin on an action or a look even when there might not be one.
To tell or not to tell
If your disease is well-controlled, there may be no need to ask for special accommodations, or to disclose your medical condition. However, like a bad poker player, your “tell” may be highly evident to those with whom you work. Your movements, the condition of your hands, your facial expressions, the tone of your voice, your mood, and your energy levels can be an indication that you are unwell.
I was fortunate to have colleagues who cared enough to ask why I was moving the way I was whenever I had a flare. I took this as an opportunity to educate them about the disease, which first appeared when I was 19. No, RA is not just an “old person's disease.” Yes, an hour or two can make all the difference in how I move. No, it's not the same thing as “wear and tear arthritis.”
Sharing and caring
If your place of employment offers professional development or training, or holds regular meetings, perhaps you could propose a sharing-and-caring information session. While you may be the only person with RA at work, others could be struggling with different health concerns and needs. If your place of employment offers first aid training, such a session could be included in the class.
During such a session, it might be a good time to do some simulated exercises. Have people put small pebbles in their shoes, then walk around to give an idea of what it is to walk on feet suffering from RA. Wind rubber bands around their fingers, then put mitts on and ask them to use their hands as they normally would to show them how finger dexterity is often reduced from RA. With a little creativity, you can invent other exercises that give insight into the challenges those with RA face. Look for resources at The Arthritis Foundation and the Job Accommodation Network.
Here is an RA simulation suit video that can be used to build understanding of what it is like to live with this disease.
One by one
When it comes to smoothing your relationships with your colleagues, it may be helpful to apply a strategy that is often attributed to Julius Caesar, but was employed by earlier civilizations. “Divide and conquer” can be a way to foster understanding and compassion. Take time to get to know your colleagues, one by one, and work on becoming acquaintances, at the least. Ask questions. Share. You may discover that they also have people in their lives who are struggling with chronic illness.
If you can make one good friend at work, it can sometimes be enough to help you get through your day.
It's comforting to be able to rely upon one another when the going gets tough. Someone with whom you can share your pain, your laughter, your successes, and your failures. And, yes, even your lunchThe next level
There are laws to protect workers with disabilities. If you find that your colleagues are still ganging up on you, take it to the next level. Talk to your supervisor or human resource specialist to find out what options are available.
Things to keep in mind
- Always start with yourself.
- It takes courage and wisdom to choose your battles.
- Your efforts may be making it easier for those who come after you.
- There are times when you have to let it go.
What have you done to overcome any difficulties you may have had with colleagues?
See More Helpful Articles:
Disclosing Your Chronic Illness at Work
Coping with the Stigma of RA
Tips for Getting Through Your Work Day When You Have RA
Move Through Anger and Resentment When You Have RA
Marianna Paulson is known as Auntie Stress. On her website, you'll find links to her two blogs, Auntie Stress Cafe and the award-winning, A Rheumful of Tips. She also publishes a mostly monthly newsletter called The Connective Issue. Sign up here to receive information, tips, and to learn about giveaways.