People with arthritis struggle to remain in work – this needs to change
- Hospital waiting lists
The word arthritis is used to describe pain, swelling and stiffness in a joint or joints. Arthritis isn’t a single condition and there are several different types. The pain and fatigue these conditions cause often makes working life hard and people with arthritis can really struggle to remain in work without the right adjustments.
The annual cost of working days lost due to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis was estimated at £2.58 billion in 2017 and is predicted to rise to £3.43 billion by 2030.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in the number of people neither in nor looking for work and the Spring Budget reported that 6.7 million of the working age population are economically inactive (excluding students). We welcome the announcement of over £400 million in funding for employment support within musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health services. This includes tailored employment support within MSK and mental health services in England, as well as expanding the well-established and successful Individual Placement and Support Scheme (IPS) and scaling up MSK hubs in the community. This is a unique opportunity for services to be shaped around the lived experiences of people with arthritis and other MSK conditions.
The problem, the scale and who is worst affected?
For people with arthritis, it can be difficult to manage both chronic pain and the demands of a job, particularly if someone is waiting for joint replacement surgery. In our 2021 State of MSK report, over half of people (53%) with MSK conditions surveyed said their symptoms have a negative impact on work, while almost half (46%) reported it interfered with their ability to concentrate.
We also know that not everyone will feel the impact equally – research shows large differences in how arthritis affects people’s working lives, depending on their age, level of education and gender. Women, for example, are up to up to 17% less likely to be employed than people without the condition. What does this tell us? Some groups of people with arthritis, like women, and those without a university degree are finding it harder to remain in work and are leaving the workforce earlier than their peers – suggesting that they are missing out on crucial employment support.
What is the solution?
Many people with arthritis will want to work and can do so if they are given adequate assistance. Hopefully the new support announced in the Spring Budget will help more people with arthritis into work. We’ve funded research into extending working life and working well, as well as our policy work on the DWP-funded Access to Work scheme.
Crucially, getting people back into work also relies on being able to access healthcare within a reasonable timeframe, for example access to life-changing joint replacement surgery and supporting people to wait well. For this to be possible, the government must address ongoing NHS workforce challenges and ensure that staff are adequately supported to help people awaiting hospital treatment.
But there’s more to be done.
We’ve long called for changes to employment support, particularly of the Access to Work programme. This vital programme provides in-work support and specialist equipment for people with long-term conditions and disabilities. However, it’s relatively unknown and difficult to access. That’s why we think that the government should do more to promote in-work support schemes like Access to Work across the UK.
While the new funding announcements are exciting, tackling issues with existing programmes like Access to Work and the backlog in care should be prioritised too.
Georgia Preece is Policy Officer at Versus Arthritis, a UK wide charity supporting people with arthritis and MSK conditions.