The Struggles of Finding a Job With Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Losing a job is difficult. Couple that with managing a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and trying to get back up on your feet can seem even more daunting. People with chronic illnesses are more likely to be unemployed than their healthy counterparts. Finding and keeping a job can be very difficult for people with RA. Here are tips to help if you’re currently looking for a job or struggling to keep one with a chronic illness.

Doctor examining a woman's neck and shoulder.

First, take care of you

There are a lot of challenges involved in looking for a job, but the good news is that the ever-evolving treatments for RA are giving people the opportunity and ability to work more than ever before while managing their condition. Do your best to ensure that your RA is as controlled as possible. If you have symptoms that get in the way of looking for work or performing the duties of a job, such as pain, flares, and fatigue, talk to your rheumatologist about options that can make you feel better.

Woman selecting her work goals.

Clarify your goal

Looking for work is like any other goal: It needs a plan. Do some thinking about what kind of job you’re looking for. Research the average salary for the position you’re interested in. Next, develop a list of places where you can apply, and then create a "plan-B" list of otions in case your ideal job goal doesn’t work out. Being clear about your goal and where you’re willing to compromise can give you confidence as you prepare your application or attend interviews.

Group of young people standing and talking.

Be resourceful when looking for work

There are many websites that tell the average person how to best look for work. One of the key factors is networking, that is, talking to everyone you know and asking them for help as a mentor or even to have them check their own sources for job openings. When you have RA, you also want to tap into the RA community. Other people with the same condition can tell you about companies that are humane in their treatment of employees who live with chronic illness, as well as the companies that can make it hard for someone like you to work.

Job interview, greeting a job candidate.

Should you disclose your illness?

You are not legally obligated to tell anyone about your chronic illness, not in an interview, not when you’re working for an organization. Although the law prohibits employers from not hiring or firing someone with a chronic illness, the reality is that it happens. In an interview, the goal is to share your qualifications so the company can make a decision about whether you are right for the job. Unless your illness has given you unique qualifications for the job — for instance, as a health advocate or social worker in a chronic illness clinic — it’s probably best to not mention it in an interview.

Woman pushing button on work place elevator.

Consider workplace accommodations

The only time your employer is entitled to know about your medical condition is if you request accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you have the right to request reasonable accommodations that will make you better able to complete your work. Depending on the job, this might even include flexible hours or the ability to work from home. You can ask for accommodation during the interview, if you receive a job offer, or even after you start working. The Job Accommodation Network has more information.

Door to human resource office.

Being different can be hard, even at work

Asking for accommodation can feel intimidating. Once you “out” yourself as someone who is different, will it lead to you being treated differently? If your employer is a good one, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, sometimes work can be very much like high school and bullying does happen. Finding an ally, such as your boss or a human resources staff member, is important.

Man taking an online course.

Should you change careers?

Some people with RA may reach a point when their condition makes it extremely difficult or even impossible to continue in their current career, especially if it’s a very physical job. One option is to change careers to a job that is more mental. It may be possible for you to switch careers within your current organization. Going back to school to take courses or to earn a different degree may also lead you to a job that would be less physically demanding,

Happy woman working from home.

Is freelancing for you?

If working a traditional 9-to-5 job is very difficult for you, another option is to look into freelancing. Many people with chronic illnesses opt to freelance because it allows them to work from home and make their own hours. While working from home has its benefits, it also comes with some hazards, the main ones being not having a steady income and not having access to affordable health insurance. Both can be essential for managing RA.

Business woman.

There may be better options for you

In the past, at least half of people with RA had to stop working within 10 years of diagnosis. For many, this is no longer the case. The combination of better treatments, the support of the ADA, and advances in technology mean that you have more options than ever before to work, just like anyone else.

Happy and creative at work.

Above all, be happy

The most important thing in all of this is to do what you love if at all possible. If having RA means you have limited time and energy (due to flares and appointments), you don’t want to waste it on doing something that doesn’t make you happy. For some, that happiness comes from working in a job that is their passion. For others, the knowledge that working allows them to have insurance and to support their family is what makes them happy.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.