Despite the increased focus placed upon health and wellbeing in the office environment over recent years, illnesses and injuries continue to affect the workforce in quite the pronounced manner. Among the more common afflictions suffered by the UK workforce are musculoskeletal illnesses, and so in the hope of taking steps toward alleviating the issue, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) recently partnered with a team from the University of Manchester to investigate exactly how conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and adult Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) impact upon our daily professional lives, subsequently publishing their results in the Work Matters Survey 2017.
Img: U.S. National Library of Medicine
RA and JIA alike can cause significant pain and discomfort, yet despite the fact that 97% of the survey’s 1,500 UK-based respondents feel they are now being more open about their condition at work; understanding from employers, managers and colleagues is not keeping pace.

A worryingly-high figure of 39% say their employer lacks awareness of RA and the impact it can have upon an individual, which actually marks an increase from the previous survey of 2007 in which this figure sat at 29.5%. The biggest barrier to these individuals in terms of how their condition affects their working life comes, according to the survey, when they require time off due to feeling unwell or experiencing a flare-up, with 37% of respondents citing this as either a ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’ problem.

This was closely followed by a “lack of support from an employer or line manager” and a “lack of understanding from their colleagues” in terms of the most-cited RA-related workplace issues, with as many as one-in-four respondents naming the latter as a ‘serious’ problem.

With recent statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) showing that 0.5 million workers suffered with musculoskeletal disorders in the fiscal year of 2016/17 alone, resulting in 8.9 million working days lost, the true scale of this issue is becoming increasingly apparent, and reassuringly it does seem that progress is being made. While 2007 saw 55% of people with RA in employment, this figure rose up to 63% in the latest report.

It’s far from all good news however, as the fact that more than half of the survey’s participants state that they would be unable to continue work if their role was to become more physically or emotionally demanding highlights the clear need for additional support from employers, managers, and colleagues alike.

The problem has become so severe for some that 41.5% of respondents have had to change jobs since the onset of RA, with 15% being forced to stop working altogether. This was attributed in large part to a lack of support from the company, with only half of those working with RA being offered adjustments to working patterns or provided with specialist equipment to ease their burden. This lack of appropriate support is apparently more pronounced among SMEs, as they often do not have an internal HR department to deal with such issues.

Matthew Bezzant, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at NRAS, commented on the findings, “It’s really interesting to see how the evolving workplace is affecting people with auto-immune conditions like RA. As the adoption of flexi-working increases and new laws to protect employees come into place, there is still a need for companies to invest time understanding these conditions, especially as desk-based work is continuing to increase.

“To be progressive, HR teams around the UK and managers of smaller businesses need to understand that conditions like RA are manageable in the workplace. Our Work Matters survey highlights that businesses in the UK need access to information on how to create a flexible and supportive working environment in order to adopt this. Sadly, less than half of those surveyed were offered supportive changes in their last job; easy adjustments like flexible working hours, shorter days or special equipment. Ultimately, a physical disability should not limit individual career success.”

Dr Suzanne Verstappen, Reader at the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Epidemiology, Centre for Musculoskeletal Research, and School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester, added, “For many people with rheumatoid arthritis and adult juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) work is important. I have been researching people with arthritis and the workplace for more than 15 years now. Although it seems there is growing awareness of the impact RA has at work, this survey highlights again that many people struggle in their careers and have to retire early. It also shows that there are various factors that determine whether people find it difficult to perform their job (e.g. understanding and help from colleagues and/or manager, reasonable adjustments, demands of job, flexible hours).

“In addition, this research provides a unique insight into the experiences of young adults planning their career and early employment. Results indicate a lack of structured support within schools/universities for young people with chronic condition(s). The results of this are very important and will inform patients, employers, health care professionals and policymakers about possible interventions in the workplace and future policies to prevent problems at work and job loss.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor as he continues to expand his horizons.
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