Exactly How to Make it Through the Work Day When You Have RA

Even a mostly enjoyable job can become a pain—literally—when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and are dealing with the discomfort of a flare. As you probably know, your work life doesn’t need to be physically demanding to cause you trouble. In fact, a role that’s butt-in-seat can exacerbate your symptoms. “The most common challenges we hear from RA patients in the workforce involve sitting at their desk or standing up for long periods of time,” says John Gallucci, Jr., DPT, CEO of Jag-One Physical Therapy. “Managing your symptoms and knowing your limitations helps—it’s the best way to prevent missing work.” Check these tips for making it to quitting time comfortably.

Treat Yourself to an Early Tuck-in

We get it: Disappearing into Netflix in the evenings is one of life’s reliable pleasures, but try to stop at one episode. A successful day at work begins the night before. Of course, getting enough Z’s is easier said than done, especially when you’re feeling achy—and more than 56 percent of people with RA experience sleep problems, according to a 2018 study. For the best shuteye, hit the hay around the same time every night, keep your bedroom dark and cool, and avoid lit screens for at least an hour before bedtime.

Eat Well

Taking time to shop and prepare healthy lunches and stash nourishing snacks in your desk is pretty much always worthwhile, and some research suggests it’s especially beneficial for those with RA. “A healthy diet can help control your symptoms,” says Gallucci, whose PT company has offices in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. While no one specific mode of eating has been proven effective for RA, Gallucci recommends prioritizing whole foods that limit inflammation, like fish, veggies, and nuts.

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Move a Little More

Add your favorite gym classes (or just a brisk walk outside) to your Google calendar, just as you do your weekly status meetings, and guard that time without guilt. Exercise doesn’t just help alleviate stiffness and sore joints. Getting physical activity, no matter the intensity, helps reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease in RA patients, according to new research from the University of Alberta in Canada—especially important since having RA increases your risk of the disease.

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Change Up Your Space

An ergonomic chair or adjustable sit-stand desk can make a huge difference. (Consider the staggering number of hours you log using them!) Ask an occupational therapist for pointers on adapting your office for joint protection, suggests Marcy O’Koon, senior director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation. And keep tools for comfort—like soft fabric shells filled with ice or buckwheat (that you can heat in the microwave) and apply to tender joints—right in your desk drawers for when you need them.

Offload Some Stress

Eliminating stress where you can isn’t just a matter of maintaining your happiness (no small thing!), but maintaining your physical health, too. “Emotional stress takes a heavy toll on people with RA,” says O’Koon. “When your joints aren’t happy and you’re feeling fatigued and overall unwell, slow down, clear your calendar, ask for help, ask for extensions on deadlines, and avoid toxic people.” Practice saying no more often and it’ll start coming more naturally.

Walk the Walk

Whether you sit at a desk for hours on end or spend your afternoons standing, you’ll want to go for a stroll down the block or around the office building often to sidestep stiffness. “Stay in motion by taking small walking breaks, moving your legs while sitting, or squatting in place at your desk,” recommends Gallucci. And if your job involves lifting, be sure to use good form, bending at the knees.

Request Flexibility

Picture your day minus your commute: Does it seem more manageable? If so, you might talk to your boss and see if it’s feasible to work remotely from time to time or to come into the office late on occasion. “Flexible work hours, working from home when possible, frequent stretch breaks, or a work station modified for your needs can make the difference between a job that’s doable and one that isn’t,” says O’Koon.

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Know Your Rights

Working when you have RA means you may need to take the initiative to make your office environment more comfortable—but you shouldn’t have to do it alone or foot the bill for needed upgrades. “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any company with more than 15 employees is required to provide reasonable accommodations to anyone with a disability, so don’t be afraid to speak with your supervisor about making your workspace a more comfortable environment,” says Gallucci.

Make a Switch

Depending on the severity of your condition, you may want to consider a career shift. “Someone who has a more mild case of RA or is well controlled on medications has more options than someone who is severely affected,” says O’Koon. If you find yourself regularly having a tough time at work or your symptoms are exacerbated by your role, you might look for a new opportunity, she suggests. “Long hours standing and even sitting, like in retail or at a service desk, can be a problem.”

Assemble Your Village

While a supportive supervisor and great colleagues are gold, it’s just as important to have an external team you can call on. Keep a list of friends, neighbors, and any support group members who are willing to help, for those days when you can’t manage to walk the dog or lug the trash cans to the curb after work. “Examine your life and demands carefully with the help of a trusted friend, and brainstorm what can be changed in your life,” advises O’Koon. “Even little adjustments are better than none.”

  • RA and Sleep Problems: Journal of Clinical Medicine. (2018) “Sleep Quality in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Associations with Pain, Disability, Disease Duration, and Activity.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6210607/
  • Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Disease in RA Patients: The Physician and Sports Medicine. (2019) “Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Long-Term Cardiovascular Risk in Individuals With Rheumatoid Arthritis.” tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00913847.2019.1623995
Laurel Leicht
Meet Our Writer
Laurel Leicht

Laurel Leicht is a writer and editor in Brooklyn specializing in health, fitness, lifestyle, and travel. Her work has appeared in outlets including O the Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, Marie Claire, and Well+Good.