On International Day of Disabled Persons, we are delighted to share a blog by Laura McClinton, a solicitor with Burness Paull.

This blog was first published by Burness Paull to mark World Arthritis day on 12 October 2021 and is reproduced with kind permission.

“You don’t look like you have arthritis?”. I often find it strange when people say this to me when I tell them I have arthritis.

What does an individual with arthritis look like? I suppose the assumption is that it is an older person and not an otherwise healthy mid-twenty year old. It may therefore come as a surprise that arthritis, or similar joint conditions, affects more than 10 million people in the UK alone, affecting people of all ages, including children.

Arthritis is a common condition causing pain and inflammation in a joint and the most common types in the UK are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is an incurable disease and, for many individuals with arthritis, it can affect daily tasks such as dressing or walking.

Why is it important to manage arthritis and similar conditions?

The Office of National Statistics annually releases information in relation to sickness absence in the UK labour market. In 2020 musculoskeletal problems, of which arthritis is included, accounted for 15.4 per cent of sickness absence. Musculoskeletal problems were the second most common reason for sickness absence for most of the decade. The NHS Long Term Plan published in August 2019 highlighted that “over 30 million working days are lost due to musculoskeletal (including arthritis) conditions every year in the UK”.

Prejudice around arthritis

As with many other health conditions, both physical and mental, there can be prejudices around conditions such as arthritis. Personally, I used to think that speaking about my condition in job applications or at interviews would mean that people would doubt my professional capabilities or see it as some kind of “red flag”.

The UK Government is implementing a strategy to get one million more disabled people into work by 2027. This includes establishing a framework for large employers to voluntarily report on mental health and disability within their organisations. Encouragingly, over 20,000 companies having signed up to the Disability Confident scheme to promote disability inclusion. You can find out more about this here.

Equality Act

Under the Equality Act 2010 (the “Act”) a condition is a disability if it is a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal daily activities. Being an arthritis sufferer doesn’t mean that an employee will automatically fall within this definition but it is possible that they could.

What can employers do?

Employers have an obligation to not discriminate against those who fall under the Act’s definition of disability and to put in place reasonable adjustments to support employees.

So what else can employers do to help?

  • Ask! The easiest way to help someone who might be struggling with their arthritis symptoms (or any other physical or mental disability) is to ask. Working from home has no doubt thrown many of us into circumstances in which we were (and some still are) working from their dining room tables. This is a far cry from our ergonomic desk set ups in the offices and could be the cause of many of our aches and pains. Employers should speak to those who suffer from arthritis (and their team in general) to find out if there is anything they could provide to assist.
  • Be flexible. A positive outcome of the ongoing pandemic is that employers and employees have embraced increased working from home. For an employee with arthritis, or a related condition, working from home might ease the stress of commuting when they are having a flare up and having issues walking or driving.
  • Be aware, there are good days and bad days. We all have these and the nature of our condition is that things like the weather, particularly colder and wetter, can have an effect on symptoms.
  • Explore what reasonable adjustments are possible. Although not all reasonable adjustments will be possible for every employee, try and be as proactive and provide the employee with anything that could help. That mousepad with extra support or footrest could be the key to prevent further strain or exaggerating arthritis symptoms.
  • Consider the unique skills and competencies gained by someone with arthritis. Arthritis sufferers have had to overcome the enormity of their conditions and the ups and downs of this, all while continuing to grow and develop in the working world. This condition can give rise to so many essential skills that are adaptable to the workplace, including resilience, organisation and the ability to empathise with others.
  • Allow time for medical appointments. As with many medical conditions, routine hospital appointments and GP appointments are part and parcel. Try to be as flexible as these as possible. These not only benefit the employee’s health but if an employee with arthritis is attending these appointments regularly it should mean that their condition is better managed.

What can employees do?

Don’t assume that your employer will know about your condition and its manifestations. Speak to them. Working from home and the pandemic in general has made it harder for employers to have visibility if employees are struggling. If you have concerns or worries speak to your manager or HR department and ask for help.

Long-term conditions such as arthritis need not be a barrier to the workplace. All that is often required is a little more conversation….