Gradual return to work with rheumatoid arthritis

By Rheumamill
Gradual return to work with RA

Working the Covid Rheuma

Most of the world is still trying to combat this global pandemic. Despite this, many of us are faced with the gradual return to work. For many, it’s a welcome relief from the lockdowns imposed on us as a way to fight this virus. In saying that, the thought of venturing out of our safety zone can fill us with dread. For those living with rheumatoid arthritis and immunosuppressed, the anxiety is even more so.

Do I or don’t I?

Three weeks ago, I returned to work amongst mixed emotions. I had spent the last 6 months hidden away from the world. It was actually quite exhilarating knowing that I was going to get some normality back. By the same token, I was petrified of what could happen should I catch this horrible virus. I do know of a few friends who had caught the virus. These friends were relatively healthy and had no serious medical concerns. After listening to their ordeal, I became convinced that I may not survive the same experience. For those living with rheumatoid arthritis, pain and weakness is a constant companion. Often times you barely have enough energy to perform minute tasks let alone fight off a potential deadly virus.

As a special needs teacher, the threat of exposure is very real. My line of work requires me to not only work physically close to my colleagues but also my students. The very essence of my work is to teach functional life skills through physical assistance. Social distancing is very much redundant in my work setting. My student lack the capacity to understand what that means. As my students are also largely non-verbal, body language and facial cues is the predominate means of communication. This means that wearing a mask or any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is not ideal and I am not required to do so. You can read more about how I manage work and RA here.

So why return to work?

Fortunately, I was given the option of whether or not to return to work. I could’ve continued to work from home. Remote work however meant sitting in front of a computer for hours . This ended up affecting my eyes and just about every joint and muscle in my body, particular my wrists. I found myself wearing my compressions and splints more than what I usually would and I desperately needed to see my osteopath. Osteos and massages however were out of the question. Allied health businesses were not operating and my insurance benefits had been put on hold as a result.

Most of all, staying at home over time affected my mental health greatly. As someone who does not normally seek social opportunities, I found myself craving interactions with others. Despite living at home with my children and my parents, I needed more human contact. I need to be amongst my peers. Returning to the workplace therefore meant that I had to decide which was the better of two evils. Do I face the anxiety and risk catching Covid? Or do I return back to work which, will be less strenuous on my mental and physical health?

Ask your Rheumy

I discussed my dilemma with my family and friends, as well as my boss. For those considering returning to our physical workplace, it is best to have an honest and open discussion with your employer or human resources department. If you need help explaining rheumatoid arthritis to others, I offer tips in an article here. Having the support of your rheumatologist will also be beneficial. Luckily for me, my employer has a family member with rheumatoid arthritis so was aware of my condition. Otherwise, it would be advantageous to ask your rheumatologist to write a supportive letter to outline why you need to continue to work from home. Conversely, your rheumatologist may be able to provide a work guide to advise what support your may require and provide information about your condition if you chose to return.

There is no I in team

Workplaces, whether it be a large organisation or a small business, don’t generally know what their employees need unless they are being told. Returning employees should be explicit with what they would require and work collaboratively with their employer to negotiate a work plan. These are some things you might want to discuss with your employer:

  • Medications you are on and how it may or may not affect your work. It is important for employees returning to work to inform their employer what medication they are on in case of an emergency.
  • Any future appointments you may need to take time off work for.
  • Negotiated breaks or days off to rest
  • Symptoms that may affect how you perform certain tasks
  • Negotiated duties. Tasks that you can no longer do effectively can either be adjusted or swapped for something else.
  • Aids that might support you in the workplace (supportive pillows, adjustable chair, heating/cooling)
  • Mental health concerns (anxiety, stress). Some workplaces have ties with allied health professionals to support their employees.
  • Your legal rights
  • Gradual return if possible

My not so gradual return to work

Now that I have been back at work for a full two weeks, if it is possible to have a gradual return to work, I would highly suggest it. Having jumped into a full time work process, the fatigue has hit me pretty hard. Not just physical fatigue but the mental exhaustion and brain fog also. It has been a real shock to the system to go from working in my home office for 6 months to chasing after 6 years olds. Although I welcome and feel better about being more active, it has taken a toll. It really feels like I’ve used up all my spoons just for work and beyond that, I haven’t got much else.

Tips for your gradual return to work

On a sort of positive note, there are some things that I’ve come to do really well since returning to work:
Prioritising, letting go and being okay with it.

That means, I do the best I can as a working mum and meeting the demands of work. The rest is…. well… meh. I’ve learnt to let go of the guilt and appreciate that my mental and physical health is important too and I’m not going to feel bad about it.

Setting goals is something I have also done for when my body readjusts to my return to work. My first goal is returning to exercise. Aside from taking my dog for a walk, I’ve allowed myself to rest as much as I can. I am conscious of not falling into a habit of inactivity. Sometimes we can mistake our feelings of tiredness for what is actually lack of motivation and falling off the exercise bandwagon. Physical activity, particularly outdoors activity, is actually a great energy boost as counter intuitive as that may sound. If you’re having trouble getting motivated for exercise, try my free stretch and exercise program!

The other goals are spending more quality time with my children and continuing my work on The Rheuma Mill.

Pain Relief Kit

Something that I added to my work bag since returning to work is my pain relief kit. This includes an eye mask, compressions, heat pack, a change of shoes and some natural remedies like oils. All these things come in handy to offer me quick support and relief when I need it.

One of the most important things that has helped me greatly since returning back to work is my nutrition. Making sure that I eat right helps me to maximise my energy levels and keeps my inflammation at a minimum. Diet influences our mood, our energy levels and how well we function. In order to do this, I meal plan and make sure that I have all the right foods that I need for the week on a Sunday.

If there is one thing that has helped me most since my return to work is the time I have allowed myself to rest. Sleep doesn’t always come easy but I always make sure that I rest both physically and mentally. When I catch myself thinking, ‘boy, I’m exhausted’ or ‘I need to sit’, then that is my cue to rest. It’s easy to just slip into the habit of just pushing through but in order for you to work effectively, you need to listen to your body when it’s telling you to rest.

Have you had a gradual return to work?

We’d love to hear about it on The Rheuma Mill! Share your return to work tips in the comment section below!

Gradual return to work with rheumatoid arthritis