Workers with arthritis need employer support: Study

Employees with arthritis have significantly better work outcomes if benefits and accommodations are available to them, according to a recent study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto.

The study is the first to look in detail at what workers with arthritis need in terms of benefits and accommodations at work, what is available and what is actually used. Even more tellingly, the study provides a glimpse into whether the need, availability and use of specific supports may actually help people do their work.

The study involved interviews with 219 workers in Ontario and British Columbia who had a diagnosis of osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis. The sample contained a broad range of individuals in terms of the types of jobs and industries they worked in. The participants also varied in their health conditions; though all had arthritis, some experienced no disability whereas others experienced a fair amount of pain, fatigue and functional limitations.

The study asked participants about their access to and use of benefits (such as extended health benefits and short-term leave) and accommodations (such as flex-time, modified schedules, equipment adaptations and work-at-home opportunities).

Overall, only a small proportion reported not being offered any benefits or accommodations (5.5 per cent). Also noteworthy is that one-quarter to nearly two-thirds of respondents said they didn’t need various types of benefits or accommodation for their arthritis — a sign that not everyone with arthritis finds the condition disabling.

The study found that no single benefit or accommodation was seen by everyone as the best.

“A menu of policies and accommodations is going to be more useful in the long run,” said Monique Gignac, an IWH senior scientist and lead author of the study. “Each of these supports may be helpful at least some of the time. There’s not one benefit or accommodation where we can say, ‘Well, employers shouldn’t bother with that.’ ”

The study also analyzed the work outcomes of people who used their workplace supports compared to those who did not have access to supports. The study found different benefits and accommodations were related to positive workplace outcomes in different ways.

While most people didn’t need short-term leave, those who needed it and used it reported fewer work limitations, job disruptions, productivity losses and reduced hours, compared to people who needed short-term leave but didn’t use it.

Supports such as special equipment, work-at-home arrangements, extended health benefits and short-term leave were associated with people less likely to reduce their working hours.

Flexible hours were related to fewer job disruptions.

People who needed and used work-at-home arrangements reported less job disruption, productivity loss and reduced hours compared to those who would have liked these arrangements but couldn’t use them, largely because they were unavailable. What’s more, using work-at-home arrangements seemed to put people on par with healthier participants who reported not needing these arrangements.

Because symptoms of arthritis tend to “flare” (come and go), Gignac noted that many people will not use benefits and accommodations all of the time, but having these policies available can make an important difference.

“There are things employers can do to help, and they’re not things that employers have to design from scratch,” said Gignac. “A lot of these things are policies or practices that companies are doing for other employees, especially as people age and start to have health problems. But what we’re finding is they can make a difference for people with arthritis as well.”

Uyen Vu is the communications associate at the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health and the editor of the institute’s quarterly newsletter At Work.