The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) has announced findings from a study conducted in partnership with the University of Manchester that investigates the impact of rheumatoid arthritis and adult juvenile idiopathic arthritis in the workplace.

NRAS surveyed more than 1,500 people in the UK to see how the life-long, debilitating illness affects their career and employers’ attitudes. NRAS last ran such a wide-ranging survey in 2007.

Despite 97 per cent of people with RA feeling that they are being more open about their condition at work, a rising number of employers still do not understand the illness and its symptoms. Working participants believe having ‘time off when feeling unwell or experiencing a flare up’ is the biggest barrier that they currently face at work, with more than a third (37 per cent) ranking this as either a serious or very serious problem.

This is closely followed by ‘lack of support from an employer or line manager’ and one in four of those working with RA find the ‘lack of understanding from their colleagues’ to be a serious problem.

Musculoskeletal illnesses are amongst the highest causes of lost workdays in the UK and although more than 400,000 people in the UK are living with RA, awareness for the debilitating condition remains low – as once again proven by this comprehensive study.

There has been notable progression in the workplace over the last decade – nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of people with RA are in employment today compared to 55 per cent in 2007. Yet, more than half of the participants would feel unable to continue work if their job became more physically or emotionally demanding, highlighting the need for appropriate support in the workplace.

More than a third (39 per cent) of respondents cite that their employer doesn’t understand the disease, compared to 29.5 per cent in 2007. Awareness levels are critically low at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular, which are unlikely to have an internal HR department.

Short of half of those surveyed (41.5 per cent) have had to change jobs since the onset of the illness and 15 per cent were even forced to stop working altogether. The survey has revealed that, unfortunately, only half of those working were offered adjustments such as flexible working, reduced hours or special equipment in their last job.

RA also impacts on financial and job security – 39 per cent of people with RA find themselves having had to take on part-time positions and 48.5 per cent of respondents would feel ‘rather or very insecure’ if their condition prevented them from working for a longer period of time. This can, in turn, lead to anxiety and depression – with mental health issues being the second-highest cause of lost workdays in the UK.

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.’