Keeping people with arthritis on the job
Arthritis is the most common condition that causes Canadians to stop working. That is a big problem when you consider the fact that over six million Canadians live with arthritis and most are diagnosed between age 30 and 45, during the prime of their working lives.
The ripple effect of arthritis should not be underestimated. Arthritis is one of 100+ diseases that cost the Canadian economy an estimated $33 billion/year in lost productivity and health care costs. Despite its significant impact, few health services exist to address work issues for people with arthritis. Rather, available programs focus on vocational rehabilitation or helping people return to the workforce after stopping work. Often these interventions are too late and not very successful.
“People often feel worried and discouraged when they are first diagnosed with arthritis, especially inflammatory types, in terms of their ability to work, but they can have fulfilling work lives” said Dr. Diane Lacaille, a rheumatologist and the Scientific Director of Arthritis Research Canada, the largest clinical arthritis research centre in North America.
Lacaille has created a one-of-a-kind online program called Making it WorkTM, to help people with arthritis maintain employment and also live more healthy, productive lives on the job. Rather than waiting until arthritis leads to unemployment, this first-of-its-kind program focuses on early intervention and prevention while people are still employed in their chosen fields.
“It is not about working at all costs,” Lacaille said. “It is about giving people the tools, knowledge and strategies needed to be able to deal with the employment issues caused by their arthritis.”
The program consists of five online modules covering topics such as: arthritis treatment and self-care, managing fatigue at work, dealing with stress at work, communicating effectively to get the help needed, and make necessary changes, including job accommodations. It also involves five online video group meetings with other arthritis patients and a trained facilitator, as well as individual consultations with an occupational therapist for an ergonomic assessment of their workplace and with a vocational rehabilitation counsellor for job retention counselling.
“Our program is designed to help people address the challenges they may face at work due to their disease,” claims Lacaille. “Twenty years of research has gone into developing and testing this program and arthritis patients were involved every step of the way.”
Coworkers and employers often struggle to understand arthritis because it is an invisible disease and symptoms can change daily. “A co-worker/employee may be able to do something one day and not another,” suggests Lacaille. When people live with pain in their joints, even the simplest tasks can become challenging.
In addition to managing pain and symptoms at work, young people, in particular, who are starting out in their careers, need to consider and factor in how their disease might impact the future of their career. It is important to realize that jobs that are physically demanding are most difficult for people with arthritis. Even spending prolonged amounts of time on a computer can be hard—especially for those with arthritis in their hands.
Choosing a job that is flexible is key because having control over your day can allow you to plan and take your arthritis related needs and working conditions into consideration.
Sick in secret
In addition to managing pain, fatigue and inflammation, workers are often faced with a big question: Should I tell my colleagues and employer that I live with arthritis? The Making it WorkTM program helps people weigh the pros and cons of disclosing their arthritis and guides them through the process. “A worker has no obligation to tell his or her employer, unless their condition interferes with their ability to do the main duties of their job, and even then, they do not need to say what the condition is,” suggests Lacaille.
However, it is common wisdom that not telling an employer or supervisor about arthritis, can prevent an employee from getting the help they need. It can also stop them from accessing support and services or obtaining job accommodations that would allow them to better adapt their work to their arthritis. “If a person’s arthritis is affecting their performance, people at work will notice, and not providing an explanation for one’s challenges can also be problematic.” Having the right tools to make the best choices and right communication strategy when it comes to talking about their disease has been shown to make a considerable difference.
Closing the care gap
Rheumatologists and family doctors support patients by treating pain and other symptoms, they do not often have the time or tools to help patients troubleshoot the challenges that arise at work or in other aspects of their lives. “I witnessed this in my own practice,” Lacaille reports. “I saw arthritis patients struggling in the workplace and I did not always have the best answers for them.” As a result she has dedicated her research career to developing and testing a solution to not only help people keep their jobs, but also lead healthy work lives.
“The inability to work has a tremendous impact on a person’s financial, social and emotional well-being,” she said. “We hope Making it WorkTM prevents people from having to make the difficult choice between their work and their health.”
The Making it WorkTM program was initially developed for people with rheumatoid arthritis and is now being expanded for individuals with osteoarthritis. The program is still in the testing phase and is not yet publicly available but is also designed to teach people to: 1. Modify risk factors to prevent work disability 2. Deal with challenges at work due to arthritis 3. Adapt their work to their arthritis.
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