“My primary care provider and rheumatologist both agreed my working days are over,” said a myRAteam member. “My hands stay swollen, aching with pain every day. I can’t stand longer than five minutes without sharp, burning pain in my back and hips.”
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a progressive inflammatory condition. Although many people with RA find ways to manage their symptoms and continue working, others find it too difficult to maintain a job. They may choose to switch to a new profession, retire early, or apply for disability benefits.
“I want to work so badly, but on my good days, I push myself to do things I love, like gardening, canning and sewing,” another member wrote. “After a day, I’m useless for a week. Then I realize there is no way I could hold onto a regular job, and that is very depressing.”
There’s no definitive answer on when you should stop working with RA. And it’s not always easy to let go of a career you love or depend on. However, there are several questions you should consider as you weigh this personal decision.
In RA, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joint tissues, resulting in pain, swelling, and joint damage. The disease progression can vary significantly from person to person. Symptom severity often determines how much RA affects work and other aspects of life. In one study, one-third of people with RA stopped working to go on disability within five years. Those who had jobs requiring manual labor and higher scores on a health assessment questionnaire were most likely to stop working.
People with early rheumatoid arthritis may be able to manage mild symptoms with various treatment options. However, as RA progresses, it can reduce mobility, increase joint pain, and limit your ability to perform work-related tasks. Some jobs are easier to maintain with RA than others. If you have a stressful job, one that requires a lot of physical labor, or one that prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep, you may need to consider moving on. Working in a difficult environment can contribute to your disease progression and worsen your symptoms. Your well-being needs to be a priority, and sometimes an RA diagnosis brings that reality to the forefront.
For specific tasks that you find challenging (such as typing with sore wrists or standing for long periods) an occupational therapist can help you find ways to modify your environment or approach to work. Making adjustments such as replacing your desk chair or wearing more supportive shoes can make working more comfortable. If you’re not quite ready to quit altogether, you could also consider going part-time or transferring to a different role. Try to keep an open mind about your options and think outside of the box to find creative solutions that work for you.
Making others understand how much RA impacts your daily life can be difficult. If you already feel misunderstood, reaching out for accommodations at work can be hard. “I always planned on working till 65, but I have so many other conditions now that I can’t work anymore. I am struggling daily with pain and chronic fatigue,” explained a myRAteam member.
However, recognizing your limitations at work and communicating openly with your employer is essential. Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws in other countries can help protect your rights. Employers are generally required to provide reasonable accommodations that don’t put undue hardship on the company — such as flexible hours, ergonomic office setups, or modified duties — to help individuals continue working effectively. Reach out to your manager or human resources department for support.
If you think you’re being treated unfairly because of your medical conditions, you can speak with a social worker or representative from your state’s labor department. You can also check out the Job Accommodation Network for ideas on different workplace accommodations that could help.
“I gave up my job a year ago,” said a myRAteam member. “I’m living on my savings. I want to work, but RA is so unpredictable. Every day is different.”
Without a strong financial backing, leaving your job may not feel like an option. Having retirement accounts, savings plans, or other family members in the workforce can help. But ultimately, your physical health and RA treatment plan comes first, even if you don’t have everything else figured out yet. Your health care provider can offer medical advice on whether it’s in your best interest to keep working at the same level.
If you decide to cut back, you’ll need to plan new ways to handle your medical bills and living expenses. Seeking the guidance of a financial advisor can help you feel more organized and in control of your financial future. Start by asking your personal bank if they offer free financial planning.
Many people with RA choose to file for Social Security or disability benefits when they are unable to keep working. The process can take time, but gathering all of your work history and medical records can help you prepare for the application.
“I have been out of work for 14 months without income. I have been denied twice from my employer’s long-term disability company. I was going to give up, but with encouragement from my spouse and friends, I now have an attorney handling the appeal,” shared a myRAteam member.
Another member urged others to keep trying if they face difficulty getting approved for benefits: “I got accepted after my second go. I got help from a free legal aid system. I had a hearing via the computer, and it was tough. I still feel a little guilty being in my fifties and on disability, but I could not make enough to get insurance working while having this disease.”
Letting go of guilt and seeking the support you need is essential when you have RA. If you’re struggling at work, it may be time to find a new path to sustain your life and your health. Looking for volunteer opportunities, social groups, or hobbies that you enjoy can help fill the gap and ease the transition.
On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 203,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with rheumatoid arthritis.
How do the symptoms of RA affect your ability to make a daily living and maintain a good quality of life? Have you tried occupational therapy or specific work arrangements to delay the need for work disability? Share your suggestions in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.