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Coping with osteoarthritis in the workplace

This article was written by Tammy Burns and published in BenefitsCanada.com. 

 Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most prevalent form of arthritis, affecting approximately three million Canadians. And while it’s commonly believed that arthritis is a disease of the elderly, 58% of arthritis patients are under the age of 65—which means, they’re still in the workforce. If you have employees with OA, you likely know that their workplace performance, attendance and engagement are affected.

The numbers
According to a recent survey by AstraZeneca and Morneau Shepell, 35% of working Canadians with OA have taken sick days as a result of the pain associated with their condition, 19% have reduced their work hours, and 14% have taken a short-term disability leave from work. Eight in 10 surveyed indicated that OA affects their ability to perform their job. Among those affected “a great deal” by their condition at work, most feel they are less efficient (81%), less productive (75%) and unable to perform all their job functions (66%). In addition, 24% considered leaving their job permanently as a result of their pain.

“The results of this survey are a wake-up call for employers and drive home the need for effective health and wellness programs for employees, offering the education, support and treatment needed to maintain a healthy workplace environment,” says Paula Allen, vice-president and practice leader of health and benefit solutions with Morneau Shepell.

Poison pill
Unfortunately, OA in itself is not the only reason for employers to be concerned. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are widely used to treat OA, but they bring with them an increased risk of gastrointestinal complications. Unfortunately, many OA sufferers are unaware of this risk and, therefore, neglect to control it or stop taking their medication altogether.

“Rather than…taking steps to protect their stomachs, many patients instead discontinue use of their NSAID and, as a result, have to live in pain,” says Dr. Peter Lin, a family physician in Toronto.

Those side effects can take a toll on workplace productivity and engagement. The survey reveals that absenteeism, productivity and relationships with co-workers have an impact not only from the pain associated with OA but also from the side effects related to the use of OA medication.

Workplace solutions
So how can an employer best help individuals coping with OA and its related drug side effects?

A benefits plan is a good start, but Allen warns that on its own, it’s not enough. “Just because you have the tools available doesn’t mean you’re able to use them in the best way possible.”

Instead, she recommends employers offer educational programs and health coaching services so that employees can better understand the potential side effects of medications and how to minimize risk factors.

“With osteoarthritis in particular, people need to understand that it’s not just a natural process of aging. If you have an injury, if you have repetitive strain, or if you’re putting extraordinary strain on your body, it’s more likely you’ll develop the condition,” she says.

“The good and bad news is that it develops over a long period of time, so people start to show symptoms sometimes years before they actually get a diagnosis and start to treat it. But during that period of time, there’s a bunch of things you could do to protect yourself. A big component of any kind of condition management is education on how you can take care of yourself.”

Allen also suggests employers train their employees to be good health consumers, since many people—whether they have OA or any other disease—don’t know what questions to ask their physicians. And physicians are often stretched too thin to provide the support needed.

“There’s a big gap between what I think physicians want to provide in terms of education around self-care and medication management and what they’re able to provide in that six to seven minutes you’re actually in the office,” she says.

Lastly, don’t forget that workplace wellness leads to workplace productivity and engagement.

“There is a business case for this,” says Allen. “When you’re talking about how people function at work, whether they’re functioning at their best or dealing with pain, that directly affects the employer’s bottom line. It makes sense for employers to provide support so that employees who want to be healthy and productive at work have the tools to do so.”

This article was written byTammy Burns and published in BenefitsCanada.com. 

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