The quest for greater flexibility: Creative innovations for workers with arthritis

Arthritis is a leading cause of disability among adults, and it often affects them in the prime of their career. How it’s approached in the workplace can make all the difference, according to a new study by an adjunct scientist at the Institute for Work & Health.

Published: August 11, 2011

An accessible and supportive workplace is the litmus test as to whether a person with arthritis can continue working. This is the implication of a study led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Adjunct Scientist Dr. Monique Gignac, which explored the sometimes mercurial combination of arthritis and work.

Gignac and her team, including IWH Scientist Dr. Dorcas Beaton and Research Associate Ken Tang, completed a four-year study examining workplace activity limitations related to arthritis and their relationship to job modification and outcomes. The study was published in the July 2011 issue of Arthritis Care & Research (Volume 63, Issue 7, pp. 953-962).

The researchers concluded that employers—who may be unaware of the problem—can do things to help. Policies like flex time can have a huge impact, says Gignac, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

Disability related to arthritis has been linked to work loss and lost productivity. However, health factors don’t tell the whole story. They combine with other factors, such as the environment, interpersonal issues, including workplace support, and psychological factors like job stress, to predict a variety of work outcomes—absenteeism, reduced hours and job changes, for example.

People with arthritis highlight a number of difficulties working. These relate to managing symptoms; worries about remaining employed; decisions about whether to disclose one’s condition; balancing work, health and family; and difficulties with the pace of work.

Many employers are unaware that workers are having such difficulties. That’s because those with arthritis sometimes hesitate to tell others about their chronic condition for fear of looking sick, being seen as a poor worker or having limitations placed on their positions.

Are job problems unavoidable?

Given this context, Gignac’s study asked the question: Are job problems unavoidable for those with arthritis? In the study, individuals with osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis were interviewed four times, 18 months apart. Of the 490 participants, the majority were women; the study profiled 381 females and 109 males.

Findings of the study? Seventy-five per cent of participants reported occasional difficulty in the workplace, while only nine per cent faced consistently severe difficulties that would prevent them from doing their jobs or force them to reduce hours.

The study findings indicate that work problems were largely intermittent, and this suggests that such problems are not inevitable. In fact, the study found that many with arthritis have long periods of wellness interrupted by episodic flare-ups.

It is equally important to note that these difficulties may not affect productivity, and simple workplace changes often help, the study indicates. For example, workers reported difficulties involving activities such as standing for long periods, but also said that they often took simple measures, such as finding a good chair, to make their work easier.

The message for workers, employers, insurers and policy-makers

Gignac fears that many workers are silently suffering and “playing the wait-and-see game”—that is, waiting until symptoms are markedly severe before seeking any type of help. However, Gignac cautions that this may not be the best approach.

Workers should consider whether or not by delaying [seeking help], they may be making their jobs more difficult or even have to give up work, she says, adding that avenues for assistance include human resources, family doctors or groups like The Arthritis Society.

Gignac also urges employers to be flexible and understanding, and to offer tools to make workplace tasks more manageable. And this doesn’t need to be expensive, she emphasizes.

Flex time is often helpful, since many sufferers of arthritis tend to have stiffness in the mornings, she says. Furniture [equipment] and assistive devices like a stool under the desk can also make a difference. These things don’t cost a lot, but they can greatly improve the worker’s experiences. We’re often not talking about a huge ergonomic reassessment of the workplace.

As for insurers, Gignac wants them to understand that “people with arthritis are not bad risks.” And to policy-makers, she notes that “initiatives to date have tended to be top-down” and urges instead that it’s time “to think more from a team perspective and involve people with disabilities, as well as their co-workers, in finding creative innovations.”

Indeed, a change in mindset is the key message of this new study. It reminds all parties to avoid viewing individuals with arthritis as a permanent drain on workplace and health resources.