Managing Arthritis At Work
By: Caroline Tapp-McDougall
Whatʼs the leading cause of long-term physical disability among Canadian adults? If you said arthritis, youʼre correct. Essentially, arthritis occurs when a joint develops inflammation. This inflammation can occur in one area or it can become more widespread (as in rheumatoid arthritis). Regardless of the specific location, arthritis can often lead to chronic pain and physical disability.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, arthritis is not just an ʻold personʼs disease.ʼ In fact, arthritis, which actually refers to any one of more than 100 conditions, can cause physical limitations and pain in workers of any age. For instance, of the more than four million Canadians with the condition, most are between 20 to 64 years old – the working years. And arthritis is also one of the causes of early retirement among workers aged 51 to 61.
Welcoming Arthritis Into The Office
Among the chronic conditions that most affect employees, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the fourth most costly chronic condition per employee (behind heart disease, hypertension, and depression.) And, according to an Arthritis Society study, the condition has a dramatic impact on workplace productivity:
- 35 per cent of employees have been absent from work due to arthritis
- 38 per cent have taken breaks of 20 minutes from their work due to their condition
- 22 per cent of employees couldnʼt take on new projects or responsibilities
- 10 per cent have used vacations days to deal with arthritis
Understanding The Condition
Employers would be wise to learn the risk factors for work-related disability for employees with arthritis and recognize opportunities for injury prevention and daily management. For each worker with arthritis, employers should examine the physical demands of the job, the ability of the worker to control the pace of work, the stress of coping with arthritis symptoms and any co-conditions, the self-confidence in ability to work, and the amount of difficulty commuting to and from work.
Also important to managing arthritis in the workplace is to create a culture of communication. Employer support, open discussion, and respect and honesty are just as important as employee/employer education. When employees believe and fear that disclosing their condition will result in being fired, they will likely hide their conditions, go to work when they shouldnʼt, ignore their pain, avoid wearing aids or splints, and not ask for accommodations.
Fortunately, interested employers can take a number of steps to help manage arthritis in the workplace. Company management can:
- Review how each workspace is organized.
- Ask workers to regularly change positions. Alternating between standing, sitting, and walking prevents too much strain on any one group of joints or muscles.
- Emphasize the importance of short, regular breaks. Taking time away from work for a quick rest will prevent strain on affected joints.
As well, employees should be encouraged to regularly visit their doctors or arthritis specialists to track the progress of their conditions. Frequent physical exams will identify any swelling, changes in strength and range of motion, or new joint damage.
Other professionals can also help. For example, an occupational therapist or physiotherapist can conduct a physical work performance evaluation (or functional capacity evaluation) which is a test to determine exactly how much a person can lift, carry, push, pull, and perform fine motor skills. This test will determine the extent of an employeeʼs abilities.
Creating A Positive Environment
To create an arthritis-friendly work environment, employers should also consider educating co-workers about the condition. In some cases, employees who are not aware that a person has arthritis can become resentful if a person has trouble keeping up with the workload.
Arthritis is a complex, multifaceted condition that can occur in many forms. Regardless of how it appears, it may dramatically impact an employeeʼs ability to be productive in the workplace on a short or long-term basis. By learning about the condition and understanding personal needs, employers can take important steps to create an ʻarthritis- friendlyʼ workplace.
Caroline Tapp-McDougall is the publisher of Solutions: Canadaʼs Family Guide to Home Health Care and Wellness and the author of The Complete Canadian Eldercare Guide.
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