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Spreading The Word About Rheumatoid Arthritis

25th February 2018

Many employees with rheumatoid arthritis feel their employer lacks understanding or awareness of their condition. Research has even suggested that nearly half are being forced to change jobs since the onset of their illness.

Employee health and wellbeing – spreading the word about rheumatoid arthritis

More than a third (39%) of people with rheumatoid arthritis feel their employer lacks awareness of the condition. This figure has got worse since a similar survey in 2007 (29.5%), the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society has said.

Despite musculoskeletal illnesses being among the highest causes of lost workdays in the UK, and although more than 400,000 people live with rheumatoid arthritis, awareness of the debilitating condition remains low among employers, its Work Matters survey concluded.

Equally worrying, its poll of 1,500 people found many had been forced to change jobs since the onset of the illness or even compelled to stop working altogether.

There’s been progress in terms of employability of people with rheumatoid arthritis over the past decade, with nearly two thirds (63%) of people with rheumatoid arthritis now in employment today compared to only 55% in 2007, the society conceded.

However, more than half of the participants said they would feel unable to continue work if their job became more physically or emotionally demanding, highlighting the need for appropriate workplace support.

Of those surveyed, 41.5% said they had had to change jobs since the onset of the illness. 15% were even forced to stop working altogether.

Adjustments and flexible working

The survey revealed that only half of those working were offered adjustments such as flexible working, reduced hours or special equipment in their last job.

Despite 97% of people with rheumatoid arthritis feeling they were more open about their condition at work, it was felt a rising number of employers still don’t understand the illness and its symptoms.

Awareness levels were lowest within small and medium-sized enterprises who were less likely to have an internal HR department, said the society.

Working participants believed having “time off when feeling unwell or experiencing a flare up” was the biggest barrier they currently faced at work. More than a third (37%) ranked this as a serious or very serious problem.

This was closely followed by “lack of support from an employer or line manager” and one in four found the “lack of understanding from their colleagues” to be a serious problem.

Nearly four out of 10 (39%) of those with rheumatoid arthritis found themselves having to take on part-time positions, and nearly half (48.5%) said they would feel “rather or very insecure” if their condition prevented them from working for a longer period of time.

Risk of mental health knock-on

This, in turn, could lead to anxiety and depression – with mental health issues being the second-highest cause of lost workdays in the UK, said the society.

Matthew Bezzant, policy and public affairs manager at the society, said: “To be progressive, HR teams around the UK and managers of smaller businesses need to understand that conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are manageable in the workplace.

“Our survey highlights that businesses in the UK need access to information on how to create a flexible and supportive working environment in order to adopt this. Sadly, less than half of those surveyed were offered supportive changes in their last job; easy adjustments like flexible working hours, shorter days or special equipment. Ultimately, a physical disability should not limit individual career success,” he added.

So what should employers make of this?

First, yes, rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating and surprising common condition in the workplace. But because it’s relatively invisible and may often be stoically masked by sufferers, it can be misunderstood, ignored, overlooked or even simply discounted.

Yet, while rheumatoid arthritis can be debilitating, as Cabella Lowe, Professional Head of Musculoskeletal Health at Optima Health highlights, it can also be managed relatively easily, and the adjustments we’re talking about need not be onerous or expensive.

“A flexible, supportive environment should be what all ‘good’ employers aspire to as a minimum anyway and so, in that context, a condition such as rheumatoid arthritis need not be a trial or burden to manage at a day-to-day level,” she points out.

“Moreover, the fact we have an ageing workforce means chronic arthritic and musculoskeletal conditions are becoming ever-more common in the workplace. Therefore this is something more and more employers will be needing to understand, manage and accommodate.

Cabella adds “Finally, employers who are dismissive or complacent about conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis are also putting themselves at greater risk of falling foul of the disability discrimination stipulations with Equality Act.