Supporting employees with arthritis

11 May 2021

Living with a health condition can impact all areas of your life, including work. As a manager, it’s important to support people to work safely and comfortably. Making relevant adjustments for your employees isn’t simply a legal requirement, it also makes people feel like valued and respected members of the team.

Arthritis affects around ten million people in the UK and it can start at any age. This means that a lot of people of working age are living with arthritis. As an employer, it’s useful to understand what arthritis is and how it affects people at work. This can help you make sure that any team member living with the condition is properly supported.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is an umbrella term that describes a lot of different conditions that cause pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. There are different types of arthritis and they affect people differently. The two most common types are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is caused by the cartilage in joints breaking down. It’s usually affects your knees, hips, hands, and back. It’s most common in people who are in their late forties or older.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune condition. This means the body’s immune system attacks the joints, causing pain. It usually affects the small joints in your hands and feet. Most people are diagnosed between 40 and 60 years old.

Other types of arthritis include gout, which usually affects your toes and fingers, and spondyloarthritis which affects your spine.

How does arthritis affect people?

These different types of arthritis affect people in different ways, but because they all affect the joints the common symptoms are:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • joint stiffness

Other symptoms may also include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • not feeling hungry and losing weight
  • feeling hot and sweating
  • dry eyes
  • chest pain
  • digestive problems
  • depression and anxiety

How can I help?

As an employer, you have a duty of care to make sure that reasonable adjustments are made for employees with arthritis and that they are treated fairly.

1. Create an open and supportive environment

It’s important that your employees feel able to speak about the way their arthritis affects them. Try to create a culture that encourages people to feel able to ask for any adjustments they need in order to work safely and productively. People might also need to attend regular medical appointments to help manage their arthritis. Remind your team that any discussions about their health are private and confidential.

2. Make sure people know where to seek help

As well as letting people know they can speak to you, you should also signpost other ways that they can access support. This might include:

  • human resources
  • occupational health
  • an employee assistance programme (EAP)
  • a disability employment advisor

It can also be helpful to make sure that people understand your sickness and absence policies, and know that any conversations about health conditions are confidential.

3. Assess the work environment

Posture and the physical demands of a job can have a huge impact on your joints. For this reason it’s really important that people living with arthritis have all of the adjustments they need to carry out their work safely and comfortably. You should make sure that a work station assessment is completed and that your employee is given any equipment that is recommended for them.

4. Other helpful adjustments

People living with arthritis might also find it helpful to make other adjustments to their working day. This might include:

  • getting up and moving around during long meetings
  • going for a walk during their breaks
  • working from home or working flexible hours
  • managing their workload to reduce stress
  • attending medical appointments during the workday
  • wearing special footwear

Talk to your employee about what would work for them and remember that not everyone with arthritis will need the same things. A person’s needs might also change over time.

5. Taking time off sick

If somebody has to take time off because of their arthritis make sure you’re supportive and understanding. Your employee might be worried about taking sick leave and it’s important to reassure them that there is no need to feel stressed or guilty about it.

When they’re ready, you should also support your employee’s return to work. A back-to-work meeting can be a helpful way to talk about how your employee is feeling about returning to work and what you can do to help them. You can speak about any adjustments that will make it easier for them. You might also need to carry out a new work station assessment if their needs have changed.

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