From how to handle interviews to knowing your rights and where to find more help, here's the info you need to thrive at work
For some, having a long-term condition like arthritis can present a range of challenges with regard to work. If you are diagnosed before your working life has started it could shape the choices you make about your career path. If you are already in work, it can mean sick days, time off for appointments, potentially long-term sick leave and even a change in career. Understandably this can all feel very worrying.
The good news is that it IS possible to have a fulfilling working life if you suffer from arthritis. There are sympathetic employers out there, employment laws to protect you at work and, in some areas, even funding to help you start up your own business or become self-employed if a more radical change is required. You can even get help with careers advice whatever your age. Occupational Therapy is a good place to start.
As with everything to do with managing your condition, the key is to be as informed as possible. Of course, you may find that your arthritis causes no extra difficulties at work, but there are some common problems which can crop up and it’s handy to be aware of them and how to tackle them.
Michelle Oliver is 27 and has had juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) since she was eight. She works in PR and marketing. Michelle says: “I have been very lucky in terms of work and I have a career and a role that I love and I am passionate about. Most importantly to me however, it’s something, for once, that I am good at. Arthritis won’t take that away from me as it has my independence in other areas of my life.
“I am very proud of my career achievements because I feel like I had to work especially hard to get where I am now, and I remain highly ambitious and eager to further my skills.”
Michelle had health problems during school and had two hip replacements while studying at college and university but still managed to get through her education and into a job she loves.
“Venturing into the workplace for the first time as a young person with arthritis can be daunting because you can feel like you don’t know how others will react to your condition,” she says.
“The fatigue, pain and uncertainty of how you are going to feel from one day to the next, not to mention the volume of hospital appointments you might have to attend are all major challenges that need to be managed.”
Starting out in your career
If you have arthritis, a future as a mountain rescue climber might be out of the question, but lots of other fabulous jobs won’t be! Good careers advice is essential. If you’re in further education you may have access to careers advice there. If you aren’t, it could be worth asking your rheumatology team to put you in touch with Occupational Therapy as often they can help with careers advice too, and will be able to keep in mind any potential challenges with particular careers.
The options open to you could possibly depend to some extent on the nature of your condition but you may be surprised what you can achieve. Work experience is a really good place to start, to give you a sense of the reality of the job and whether it’s for you.
Kyrun Spraggs is 17 and has had severe systemic onset JIA since the age of six. He is thinking hard about the future at the moment. He says: “I’ve thought about going out to work as I’m nearly 18 now. I’m still at college and wish to go on to uni but as I’m wheelchair-bound I think I’d find it very difficult.
“My ambitions in life are to get as far as possible in my basketball career, and either enter the health care profession as a physio or as a paediatric nurse or health care assistant.
“I’ve also thought about doing charity work to help young wheelchair users to get into sport and help them live their lives as much as they can and not let their illness or condition get in their way.”
We also recommend that you read I Want To Work, a useful guide from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, for more inspiration and guidance.
Dealing with interviews
You may think it’s a good idea not to mention your arthritis at an interview. You may not want to restrict your chances of getting the job – but sometimes it can be better to be honest. It’s a bit of a balancing act. The bottom line is that you may not have to mention your condition.
The Equality Act 2010 says that there are limited circumstances under which you can be asked health-related questions before you are offered a job. You can only be asked health-related questions to help an employer:
• Decide whether they need to make any reasonable adjustments for you to take part in the selection process
• Decide whether you can carry out a function that is essential to the job
• Monitor diversity among people making applications for jobs
• Take positive action to assist disabled people
However, if you do get the job, your employer is allowed to ask health-related questions and you will need to disclose your arthritis. You may also think it is a good idea to tell your employer about your arthritis during the interview process if you want to explain any gaps in education or employment.
Common work problems
Many people with arthritis will find they are perfectly able to fit into their workplace, get along with colleagues and carry out the work assigned to them. However sometimes problems can crop up – your condition might change or you might find there are people who don’t understand your condition.
Common problems can include:
• Struggling to complete the tasks asked of you
• Stress causing your condition to flare up or make your symptoms worse
• Lack of energy and stamina to complete work
• Getting tired easily
• Colleagues and bosses misunderstanding your condition
Michelle’s Top Tips
• Be realistic. Before embarking upon a role, make sure it’s one you know you can manage and suits your requirements. I had aspirations of being an astronaut, actress and Hollywood make-up artist but soon realised that perhaps these demanding career paths weren’t the right options for me. I am a lot more comfortable with a laptop and 9-5 than a control deck or having to apply fake eyelashes to A-list celebrities.
• Be upfront with your employers. Tell them your limitations and this will help them to understand how they can accommodate you. Equality in the workplace is a huge priority and there are laws to protect you from being treated unfairly, so don’t worry about your monthly blood tests or physio appointments.
• Be the best you can be. Instead of being known as ‘the one with arthritis’, be the one who is the best at their job. Do something you’re passionate about and enjoy to forget about what you can’t do.
An employment solicitor’s tips for the workplace
Employment solicitor Mark Cornish has this to say about how to handle the workplace if you have arthritis:
• Tell your employer about your condition and its potential impact on your work, if you haven’t mentioned it in the interview. “Don’t just soldier on heroically without telling anyone,” says Mark. “When to do so isn’t always easy – early on in a job before you have protection from unfair dismissal (first two years), may be more hazardous with an unscrupulous employer.”
• Be proactive in asking for any assistance or adjustments you need in order to carry out your work. “The employer isn’t a mind reader. If an employer fails to consider suggestions from the employee, this will make it harder to claim that they considered suitable adjustments,” says Mark.
• Agree to any GP or occupational health assessments your employer may ask for – generally these are for your benefit. But be wary about repeated referrals. (We say speak to your rheumatology consultant, they may be willing to write to your employers to advise about your condition and possible requirements. Occupational therapists may also be able to advise and offer support, and possibly educate your employers about relevant gadgets to support you at work.)
• Take workstation assessments and health and safety procedures seriously. Everybody mocks “health and safety” but it can be there to help you. “Too many employees dismiss this as a pointless chore – bureaucracy gone mad,” says Mark. “But for someone with an arthritic condition, you should spell out anything about the work which is difficult because of the condition, or which exacerbates a condition. If long periods of typing cause flare-ups, state that clearly. Suggest more frequent breaks are built into the process.
At the same time, be aware and acknowledge that your employer cannot always be expected to police everything you do. If they agree more frequent breaks make sure you take them! Examples of employees not actually having followed recommendations on assessment of reasonable adjustments are surprisingly common.”
• If there is a cost or expense to the employer in making adjustments, be proactive in finding ways to reduce that cost. And if it’s agreed, keep asking when it will be put in place. Put it in writing. “Emails are often vital evidence,” says Mark. “If the delay continues for any length of time, be clear in stating that the delay is causing distress and additional pain unnecessarily.”
• Keep a diary of any relevant incidents. Contemporary evidence is always useful if proceedings are needed later. Record what has been requested, when it’s supposed to happen, and when it does so. Make a note of odd or inappropriate comments relating to the condition.
• Take copies or store emails and correspondence relating to the condition, complaints, or adjustments somewhere other than your work PC. “It can be a nightmare requesting disclosure of documents from an employer,” says Mark.
• Needing to take time off is often the most contentious concern with employers. “If this needs to happen, try and ensure that very clear rules are laid out that anyone concerned is fully aware of,” says Mark. “It is vital you stick to it. It is vital that your immediate manager knows the agreed process, and reasons for time off (and arguably their managers too).”
Know your rights at work
Good news – laws have improved plenty in the last few years to protect people who suffer from health conditions and disabilities.
The 2010 Equality Act makes it unlawful for employers to treat a person less favourably than anyone else because of a disability, in terms of recruitment, training, promotion and dismissal.
It also requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to working practices or premises to overcome substantial disadvantage caused by disability.
These can include changing or modifying the tasks you have to do, altering your work patterns, helping you with travel to work, providing special equipment and allowing time off to attend appointments.
If you have been on sick leave for more than seven days, your doctor can provide you with a “fit note”. This outlines what you can do, rather than what you can’t, helping you to return to the workplace more quickly.
If there is a union you can join, they may be able to help advise you on your rights and help you with any problems in the workplace.
Finally, it could help your employers to read An Employer’s Guide To Rheumatoid Arthritis, a booklet produced by the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society. Your rights and their duties are the same whatever the arthritis.
Employers all have their own policies about sick leave and sick pay – some of them are generous and some of them are stingy in the extreme. So find out what your employer’s policy is!
Long-term sickness is more complicated – employers may have lengthy “capability” processes where ultimately they can fairly dismiss someone for not being able to meet the standard of capability required for the role.
“Dismissal on grounds of attendance is something an employer must deal with carefully. Decisions need to be taken only after prolonged periods of time to allow the situation to improve and usually involve a significant degree of medical input,” says employment solicitor Mark Cornish.
“It is unlikely that a final decision to dismiss someone for long term sickness or excessive absenteeism would be considered fair unless there is a very clear medical report suggesting that a person could not be capable of returning to work or meeting attendance standards for a long period of time.”
Some account should also be taken of the fact that you may be absent due to disability – in which case, it could be argued that dismissal on capability grounds is discriminatory. I told you it was complicated…
Is arthritis a disability?
You may not want to think of yourself as “disabled” but for the purposes of disability discrimination law, you need to figure out what’s in your best interests.
Mark Cornish, a solicitor who specialises in employment law, says: “A disability is a condition with has a substantially adverse impact on a person’s ability to perform day to day tasks (not necessarily work tasks), which has persisted for some time, or is of uncertain prognosis.
“It can include conditions where symptoms come and go. It’s fairly well established that arthritis can amount to a disability, although a decision on this is always a question of fact for a tribunal to decide.
“But not every arthritic condition will amount to a disability. A degree of discomfort that does not actually “significantly impair” a person’s ability to do something, may not meet the definition.”
If you think your arthritis does amount to a disability you should make your employer aware of this.
Mark says: “I suspect a lot of arthritis sufferers simply wouldn’t consider themselves disabled, perhaps because they can still work through any pain, or because they simply don’t want to look on themselves as having a disability.
“But it can be a mistake not to at least have the condition acknowledged by an employer at some point. This need not be too formal, but ought to be recorded in writing somehow. Ticking ‘no’ in the ‘do you have a disability you’d like to make us aware of’ box in personnel records, will not help anyone trying to assert their rights in the future.”
It’s also important that you keep an eye on your symptoms and condition – you may want to make your employer aware if your condition gets worse.
Discrimination at work
So, you have arthritis, your employer is aware of it, and you are being discriminated against or harassed because of it. What do you do?
Ultimately, you can take your employer to a tribunal. However, employment solicitor Mark Cornish says: “The success rate in tribunal for disability discrimination claims (indeed all types of discrimination) is very low – less than 5%. I’d like to think that’s because if they have any merit they settle before they get to tribunal.
“But it’s clear that bringing a claim successfully is not easy. The time and cost, emotionally and financially, strongly indicates that an employee is better advised to spend time trying to get changes in place, than eyeing potential claims. But of course, you probably need to have one eye on both.”
There’s more help available
The Government really, really wants you to work, if you can! It’s in their interests – they don’t want to have to pay out more benefits than they have to. So if you’re finding that your arthritis is causing serious problems at work, you can find help through your local Jobcentre Plus office.
The Access to Work scheme offers practical, personalised advice and help to try to enable you to stay in employment.
Disability Employment Advisers can also offer advice and support with work issues. If you’re out of work, they can help get you back into work and help you find a suitable job.
If your arthritis does stop you from working altogether, the Jobcentre Plus team will be able to tell you what your options are.
There are some useful resources out there, including Working With Arthritis, a guide from Versus Arthritis, with a helpline to talk things over with someone who understands what having arthritis is like.
The Citizens Advice Bureau has some great advice about how to handle problems at work.
There is also a Civil Legal Advice helpline which gives free, independent and confidential advice on debt, housing, family, welfare benefits, discrimination and education. The helpline number is: 0345 345 4 345. It is open from 9am to 8.00pm, Monday to Friday and from 9am to 12.30pm on a Saturday. Calls cost up to 12p a minute from a BT landline, although it will usually be more expensive from a mobile.
There are also useful leaflets on work issues, for you and your employer, on the NRAS website. Find them here.