Fibromyalgia in The Workplace

Just because you have fibromyalgia, doesn’t mean you are ready to quit working. We work for different reasons including fulfilling a personal need, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads or paying for our children’s education, medical bills and other sundry items. Those needs don’t change with a fibromyalgia diagnosis. If you have health insurance through work, keeping your job assumes double the importance. So what steps should you take once you are diagnosed with fibromyalgia? The answer to this question is not simple, nor can any single answer apply to everyone.

Work and Fibromyalgia

It is essential you understand the law before addressing work issues. It is illegal to fire or lay off anyone because they have fibromyalgia. An employer cannot legally discriminate against you because of your syndrome. In fact, the legislation governing disabilities, including the American with Disabilities Act, prohibits discrimination at any point of employment due to a person having a disability – hiring, layoffs, dismissals, leave, benefits, insurance and even parking space assignments.

Yet, if you are unable to perform your job duties well, you may be faced with dismissal for other reasons if your employer doesn’t know that you have fibromyalgia. Though you don’t have to disclose your disability at work, in many cases it’s a good idea to inform the employer so reasonable accommodation can be made. Making the employer aware also makes it easier to protect your rights under the law.

There are some points concerning working with fibromyalgia that you need to consider carefully:

  • You will need to match the nature of your symptoms and syndrome to required work duties and decide what you can and cannot manage.
  • You need to understand the nature of your disorder and decide whether you can reasonably continue being employed in your current position. If, for example, you are working from home, there should be little difficulty in adapting. If you work in a high pressure job, you may have to consider ways to decrease the stress level.
  • You have to look objectively at what you do and whether having fibromyalgia will impact those with whom you work. If, for instance, you tire easily or any medication you are taking makes you sleepy, it may be best to not work with heavy machinery or any mechanical device that can harm you, your fellow workers and anyone in the vicinity.

Research indicates that fibromyalgia will impact people in the workplace. Those who do want to continue working should express their need to have a job that can be safely managed and fits their physical limitations. At the same time, it’s important to remember that you also need to have enough energy left over for enjoying a home life and free time.[1]

Telling your Employer

Who should you discuss your fibromyalgia with at work? The first person may not be your immediate supervisor. You might talk first to the company health representative in Human Resources or the union representative. In this way, you are fully knowledgeable of your rights and options before talking with your supervisor.

The actual decision to tell your employer is completely up to you. Whether you do so or not will, however, impact upon your ability to provide a documentation trail in case you want to apply for disability. Furthermore, letting your employer know can be helpful in a couple of other ways. If you require various concessions or adjustments to make your work easier, you will need the support of your supervisor. In addition, if the work you are currently performing can potentially exacerbate your health problems, you need to arrange for a change of position to reduce the risk of further complications.

Other positive aspects of informing your employer include:

  • It will relieve the extra stress you may feel when hiding a health problem
  • It will help you in the long run if you require increasing flexibility in scheduling or duties
  • If discrimination occurs, you will have a basis for filing a grievance, or at least the documentation to help prove your employer did not follow the law
  • If you address the situation at work and, therefore decrease the chance of  aggravating your fibromyalgia, you increase the ability of reducing the time you may lose at work[2]

In your discussion with the employer make sure you address such issues as[3]:

  • The possible need for more rest breaks in the future.  Ask if it is possible for you to take extra rest breaks on your bad days.
  • Talk about when you may be allowed to take breaks and for how long should the need arise with the understanding the additional breaks won’t interfere with your work
  • Mention that it is possible that in the future short naps would help with your work performance when fatigue is a problem.
  • Ask if there is a possibility of taking work home for completion to prevent falling behind.
  • See if it is feasible to work from home on some days. Many employers are flexible in this respect, depending upon the nature of the work you are doing
  • Question whether you can come in on a weekend, if you miss a day during the week, to make up work.

Communication

When you talk to your employer, it is important to be clear and concise. Do not be overly wordy or leave it open-ended. Simply provide him or her with the issue at hand. State that you have fibromyalgia, explain why you need help and make suggestions as to what you believe will be the best solutions.[4] Being cooperative and helpful will get you more understanding than being demanding or quoting the law. Do not be unreasonable about what you want or need. Listen to what your manager/employer has to say. Consider whether it is positive input and see if it makes greater sense than what you have offered as solutions.

You, Fibromyalgia and your Co-workers

It is also up to you as to whether you tell your co-workers that you have fibromyalgia. Your decision to tell or not tell may largely depend upon your working relationship with them. If you are working in close proximity with coworkers doing tasks that can present a safety hazard should your fibromyalgia interfere with your abilities, it’s probably a good idea to let them know of your condition. It’s not always necessary to get too specific either. Letting co-workers know there may be days when you can’t perform your work well due to muscle weakness or fatigue may be enough.

However, beware of rumors! If you don’t tell people you have fibromyalgia, there’s a good chance someone will falsely believe you are being unnecessarily lazy.

Communicating the fact you have fibromyalgia is not always going to be easy. There are plenty of people who still believe it’s not a real medical issue. If you do talk to coworkers though, it’s a good opportunity to dispel some of the myths surrounding fibromyalgia. In addition, letting people know what to do in the event you were to get sick on the job prepares them in advance to make the appropriate response so they don’t panic. Honest discussion can help them manage their own anxiety while teaching coworkers how to best help you. This is similar to what diabetics in the workplace must do to protect their health.

Conclusion

Fibromyalgia affects all aspects of your life, and that means it can have a major impact on your work. While it is up to you to decide whether you are going to tell your employer, it may be to your advantage to take control of the situation by informing those who need to know. In this way, your employer can accommodate your needs as much as possible according to the law. It is also another way of ensuring you are doing your best to take control of your life as a person living with fibromyalgia.

References

[1] Bossema, ER; Kool, MB; Cornet, D; Vermaas, P; de Jong, M; van Middendorp, H; and Geenen, R (2011). “Characteristics of Suitable Work from the Perspective of Patients with Fibromyalgia.” Rheumatology doi:10.1093/rheumatology/ker312.

[2] Sebastian Straube, S; Moore, RA; Jaine, J; Derry, S; Phillips, CJ; Hallier, E; and McQuay, HJ (2011). “Interference with Work in Fibromyalgia – Effect of Treatment with Pregabalin and Relation to Pain Response.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 12:125-133.

[3] Mitchell, D (2011). The Complete Guide To Healing Fibromyalgia. New York: St. Martin Press.

[4] Marek, CC (2004). The First Year: Fibromyalgia. New York: Marlowe and Co.

This article was originally published on July 11, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/7/2015