Creating a Home Office That Works for Your Rheumatoid Arthritis

Working remotely proved to be doable in the pandemic and, as most of us returned to living life, many workers have continued to do their job in the home. There are many benefits to this, both for the employer and the employee, and working from home can be especially beneficial for people who live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other types of chronic illness.

When you live with an unpredictable chronic condition, working at home can give you the flexibility and physical comfort you need. But working in your home also comes with challenges. Our homes are rarely designed to include a workspace, so we make do and squeeze our bodies and computers into places that may not be ideal and may in fact increase our pain levels. As well, doing your job at home can blur the lines between your life and your work, leading to mental health issues.

In this column, I’ll explore some of the challenges you may encounter while working from home and share tips for creating a home office that will support your body through a workday.

Of course, working at home is not limited to those who are an employee of a company with a remote work policy. Perhaps you are a freelancer, small-business owner, or you have a side hustle. As well, advocacy, content creation (Instagram, TikTok, or blogging), and volunteering also involves working at a computer. There are many ways to work from home — some are paid, some are not, but it all counts as work. And that brings me to my first tip of creating a home office that’s RA-friendly.

Create a Space for Work

Most residential structures are not designed with a workspace in mind, so we try to fit the job into our home the best we can. When the pandemic began, many shifted their work to a dining table, kitchen island, or contorted themselves, goblin-like, on the couch. This can create problems.

Spending most of the day in a space that’s not designed to support you for that long (think kitchen stool) is a recipe for stiffness and pain. Creating a space dedicated to work can have a positive effect on your ability to manage your RA.

If you’re lucky, you have an extra room you can convert to an office. But if every room in your home is allocated to a family member, or you live in a smaller space like an apartment, look for a nook, corner, or a 2 by 3 foot space by a wall, rearranging your furniture if necessary.

Next, purchase a desk, even a small one that can fit the equipment you use for your job. A sit-stand desk is a great option for folks who live with pain, allowing you to move around throughout the day. You can find relatively inexpensive versions at IKEA or Staples, and, as this is a work-related expense, you may even be able to get reimbursed by your employer. If not, you can claim it on your taxes. The same goes for other business-related expenses like an office chair and a lamp for your desk.

If you share your home with others (partner, roommate, children) finding a way to signal that you’re working can be an invaluable tool to separate you from what’s happening in the living space, as well as help you focus on bad brain fog days. A room divider can create a sense of you being in another room and if it is foldable and pretty (and light), like a Japanese shoji screen, it can be put away at the end of the day.

Support Your Body While You Work

When you live with RA and chronic pain, it’s important to consider your body’s needs in everything you do. You may want to consult an occupational therapist (OT) for an ergonomic assessment of your workplace. An OT is a health professional who is an expert in helping you find better way to use your body, both at home and at work.

As a resident of Canada, you may be able to access OT services under your local health network. In Ontario, the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) facilitates home care, including consults with OTs and physiotherapists. There are equivalent programs in all provinces. You may be able to self-refer simply by calling up your local health network and asking for these services, or you may need a referral from your doctor.

Pro tip: Ask for an assessment of your home in order to get tips for your kitchen and bathroom as well as your workspace.

If your work involves a lot of writing, I highly recommend using voice recognition, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I use this program to write everything, including articles, social media posts, emails, and more. Word and Google Docs also have built-in voice typing functionality.

Depending on your specific needs, you may also want to explore other ways to support your body as you work, including pens designed for arthritis, compression gloves or splints, a foot stool to rest your feet, and taking frequent breaks to move around. If you see an OT, mention tasks that cause strain or make you hurt to get more recommendations.

Doing anything that uses your body, including sitting at a desk and working on a computer, can be difficult when you have RA. Addressing this isn’t just about equipment or furniture, it’s also about learning how to work in a way that doesn’t tire you out.

Two organizations in Canada have created online learning modules to help people with arthritis learn more about their rights in the workplace and how to work with less physical impact. Check out the Arthritis Society’s Arthritis and Work, as well as Making It Work, a program developed by Arthritis Research Canada.

Create a Work-Life Balance

Although working from your home has a lot of benefits for those of us who live with RA, there are also some drawbacks, such as work-life balance. When you work from home, you’re always at work, and that can be hard to turn off. If your job is stressful, this may ripple into your off times, potentially triggering flares. Just as you may want to physically separate your workspace from the rest of your home, you should also pay attention to mentally separating yourself from work at the end of the day.

Creating a workstation can be a valuable first step in creating that balance, but it’s also important to set a specific time for work. That may be challenging if your RA is active and unpredictable, or you have caregiving responsibilities for children or other family members.

In those cases, it may be helpful to instead set a limit on how many hours you work per day. This gives you a time when you can shut down the computer, put away your work, and focus on your home life. Remember that time away from your job will help you work better. Yes, even when that time away is binge watching Netflix on the couch while cuddling the cat and a large bowl of popcorn.

Over the course of my life, I have worked both in an office and from home. Being in an office has always been challenging for me, causing more fatigue and pain. As my RA has progressed and I became more disabled, working in my home has been the only way I’ve been able to contribute in a way that’s important to me.

Being a freelance writer means I can work whenever my body is up for it, but working from home has also meant I am able to advocate for RA and accessibility. My biggest challenge has always been to separate my working time physically and mentally from the rest of my life and it took years before I figured it out.

I hope the tips I shared in this article will help you be productive while simultaneously taking care of your body.

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