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Talking to your employer about arthritis

Telling your employer about your arthritis, joint pain or related condition at an early opportunity could really help your working life.

It may seem a bit daunting and you may be worried that this will make your employer have a negative view of your capabilities.

However, if you can tell your line manager or HR department about your condition this should lead to you getting support to help you succeed in your job.

Having arthritis or a related condition means that you're entitled to support from your employers to help you do your job to the best of your abilities and in a comfortable and safe environment, which won't make your health worse. These rights are set out in the Equality Act 2010, and in the Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland.

If you're planning on having a discussion with your manager or HR department about your condition, and how it currently affects your job, or might do so in the future, you could have a script ready of things to talk about, possibly including:

  • what condition you have
  • the symptoms you experience
  • how your condition can make you feel on a bad day
  • effects of medication
  • what tasks you may need some help with
  • how your symptoms can vary on a daily basis
  • how you feel that with some support you'll be able to do your job very well
  • what useful support might consist of.

Because arthritis and related conditions can be 'hidden' and your symptoms may vary from day to day, this can make it difficult for some people to understand.

Be confident and positive when having this discussion, remember that you've done nothing wrong and have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Also remember that you're not trying to get any special treatment, you're simply asking for support which you're perfectly entitled to in order to do your job to the best of your ability – which will benefit both you and your employer.

A letter from your doctor, rheumatology consultant or rheumatology nurse specialist may help to explain your condition and the impact it can have on you. You might also like to take any relevant Arthritis Research UK information to the meeting to help inform your manager or HR department about your condition.

Try to let your employer know early on when you have an upcoming healthcare appointment, so that they can make any necessary arrangements. You have every right to go to healthcare appointments, and it's important that you do, but your employer will appreciate as much notice as possible. One young person with arthritis told us: "The more good will you can show to your employer, the more you are likely to get back."

Many large companies have separate occupational health departments. Often these are staffed by occupational health nurses and doctors who are experts in assessing and treating these conditions. They may have access to physiotherapists and occupational therapists, who can visit your workplace and recommend any necessary changes. Some companies outsource such services so that even if there isn't an occupational health department within the company's organisational structure, the opportunity is still there for employees to talk to the relevant healthcare professional. If such services are there, it could greatly help you to make use of them.

If you want to, being open with colleagues about your condition might be a good idea. It's entirely your choice who you tell, and you may prefer only to tell close and trusted colleagues. Knowing that you have understanding and caring people around you at work who you can talk to if you're having a bad day can be a good support mechanism.

If you really don't want to talk to your employer about your arthritis, you don't have to unless your symptoms or limitations posed by your condition might put the safety of others at risk (for example, if your job involves driving and you can't turn your head properly to look around), in which case you would be obliged to tell your employer.

If you don't tell your employer, you can get confidential and impartial advice about working life from an NHS occupational therapist, who you can be referred to through your GP. However, if you don't tell your employer about your arthritis you're likely to miss out on vital support and you won't be protected under the Equality Act or Disability Discrimination Act. This is because your employer is obliged to provide support so that your condition doesn't hinder you from doing your job to the best of your ability, or so you're not at a disadvantage, but they're only obliged to provide this assistance once you tell them.

Life skills acquired from managing arthritis

Telling your manager, HR department or other colleagues about your arthritis or related condition doesn't have to be in any way a conversation in which you feel you have to justify yourself. Don't see it as a conversation in which you are on the back foot, but be proactive, positive and confident.

If you tell your employer about your condition, this would be a good chance to talk about how you have overcome hurdles and how you have grown as a person by learning how to manage your arthritis.

There may be several important skills sets, competencies and attitudes you have mastered because of your arthritis.  

Think about how managing you arthritis may have helped you develop the following skills, and how you can demonstrate them in your job:

  • problem solving skills
  • avoiding potential problems
  • good time management
  • creativity
  • a sense of determination
  • being organised
  • being good at planning
  • good communication skills
  • patience
  • the ability to empathise with others
  • succeeding despite the challenges of having arthritis or a related condition.

The experience of people with arthritis or a related condition have shown us that where good, open and supportive relationships exist between an employer and an employee who has disclosed a health condition, that employee often proves to be very loyal, committed and hard working. The research suggests that employers who invest in supporting their employees with their health always get more money back than they spend.

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For more information, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org.
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