How to Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis at Work

Can’t seem to manage rheumatoid arthritis on the job? Don’t despair! These tips will help you keep up with job demands.

Barbara Burgower Hordern

Each of us has our share of work-related gripes. But, if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the workplace can be particularly challenging. Pain, stiffness and general discomfort can make it difficult just to get through the day. Learning to manage your on-the-job life, however, is the key to success. Here are three stories that could help you. 

An RA-friendly workplace
Verlynn Sauve, 53, of Kingston, Ontario, has had RA since she was 17. Despite suffering extensive joint damage, she worked as an electrical engineer for many years before retiring in 1993. What made a difference for Verlynn was asking her employer for help—and getting it!

“I loved working,” says Verlynn. “My employers were wonderful. It took me a long time to get moving in the morning, so they let me come in at noon and work late.  When I felt cold, they gave me a space heater. To minimize my walking, they found me a parking space close to my work area.” They even made Verlynn’s personal workspace more arthritis-friendly by providing an ergonomic desk.

If you are finding it difficult to get your employer to assist you in making the workplace more RA-friendly, keep in mind that, in the United States, the law is on your side. Since 1990, workplace accessibility and accommodations have been mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor has set up the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) to help keep employees on the job. Additional services are available through state vocational rehabilitation departments. To find yours, do an Internet search with the term “vocational rehabilitation department” and the name of your state (e.g., “vocational rehabilitation department South Carolina”).

Among the things employers can do to make the workplace more arthritis-friendly are the following JAN-recommended accommodations:

  • Accessible restrooms and break rooms
  • Adjustable sit/stand workstations
  • Automatic door openers
  • Book holders (mechanical devices that hold books open)
  • Closer access to restrooms
  • Desks that can be lowered or raised
  • Ergonomic chairs and tools
  • Files at levels that minimize bending or stooping
  • Flexible hours
  • Longer rest breaks
  • Joystick or roller-ball computer mice
  • Modified switches for equipment/lights that make them easier to turn on and off
  • Motorized scooters
  • Note takers or personal attendants to assist at meetings, etc.
  • Page turners (hands-free devices that can turn book pages)
  • Spinner balls (instead of steering wheels) that allow easy maneuverability of work-related vehicles
  • Shorter staff meetings (to lessen pain and stiffening)
  • Space heaters or added insulation to control temperature
  • Speech-recognition software
  • Writing aids, including cushioned pens that make holding and writing easier and less painful

Important note: Remember that it is your right under the ADA to receive reasonable accommodations. The JAN provides employees and employers with free, confidential technical assistance with job accommodations and the ADA. Visit or call 800-526-7234 for more information. 

Hitting the road
But what about simply getting to work when you have arthritis? Susan Warner, a 51-year-old public relations and marketing executive for a nonprofit rehabilitation center in suburban Minneapolis, was diagnosed with RA at age 4. She uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. She takes public transit to work, since most buses and some taxis in her area have wheelchair lifts. Even so, she prefers paratransit, an ADA-mandated transportation service often used by senior citizens and people with disabilities. “Paratransit is a dial-a-ride, door-to-door service,” she explains. “It costs me $4 each way, to and from work. The regular bus is 75 cents, but paratransit is still far cheaper than a taxi.”

People in areas without public transit may need to drive their own cars. Kelly Rouba, 30, author of Juvenile Arthritis: The Ultimate Teen Guide (The Scarecrow Press, 2009), was diagnosed at age 2 and also uses a wheelchair. She drives a modified van to her job in New Jersey.

All kinds of modifications can be made to a car or van, from hand controls to modified steering wheels. And your state’s vocational rehabilitation division may help pay for some or all of those modifications. Contact your state office or the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (call 866-672-9466 or email to find a car-modifying specialist in your area.

Many cars offer arthritis-friendly features as standard equipment; other features on this list can be added at the factory or retrofit after delivery:

  • Adjustable lumbar support
  • Adjustable steering wheel
  • Automatic 911 system to summon help
  • Electronic power steering
  • Heated seats
  • Keyless remote
  • Parallel-parking guidance
  • Push-button car starter
  • Rearview cameras to make backing up simpler and safer
  • Remote door openers
  • Remote ignition
  • Running boards
  • Seatbelt extenders
  • Voice-activated car-navigation systems

Tip: Be sure to have everything you need in your car, from assistive devices to emergency meds and water. You might also find that a beaded seat cushion—available in auto-supply stores and online—makes it easier to slide in and out of the car. And, if you have to drive long distances, plan to stop and stretch every hour. 

Taking to the air
Sara Nash, 31, is a Baltimore-based freelancer and grant writer for an arts organization. Her job requires her to travel often. What’s helped her is learning to plan ahead. On every business trip, Sara takes enough RA medication to last a little longer than she plans to be gone. She also goes prepared with whatever she may need should she get a cold—since such an illness can cause RA flare-ups.

When flying, Sara knows to wear comfortable clothes, pressure socks (“They look silly, but they work,” she says), and shoes she can easily slip on and off. She also brings a neck pillow, earplugs and a sleep mask.

Since being diagnosed three years ago, Sara has flown to South America, Asia and the Middle East. Before each big trip, she meets with her rheumatologist to form a game plan. To ward off flares, she adds to her normal medication regimen any vaccines or preventative medications the doctor recommends, including the steroid prednisone.

Before a 14-hour flight to Korea, for instance, Sara’s doctor advised her to take prednisone the day of the flight and the day after. She also was advised to avoid alcohol and to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, which can worsen arthritis symptoms. “The doctor even gave me specific instructions on when to eat, when to sleep and when to wake up during the flights,” she says. When flying long distance, Sara also makes sure to walk the aisles and stretch every hour or so to minimize stiffness. 

When you’re planning to fly, for pleasure or business, consider preparing as follows:

  • Arrive at the airport early, especially if you have joint replacements that will set off metal detectors, and have a note from your doctor explaining your situation
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Avoid having to change planes
  • Book an aisle seat so you can stretch and get up easily
  • Bring your doctor’s phone numbers
  • Check your bags
  • Stay hydrated
  • Walk once an hour while waiting in the airport and on the plane

Whether you work from home, in an office or on the road, make the accommodations your body requires to keep arthritis flares, pain and stiffness at bay. The more effort you put into preparation, the less stress you will put on your body—and the happier your workday will be. 

April 2013