This article focuses on work disability and sick leave and their cost; it also discusses the value of vocational rehabilitation programmes in rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, hip and knee osteoarthritis. It acknowledges the importance of work not only for the worker who has one of these diseases but also for the public purse. Much can be done to improve the health of the persons and reduce their disability and its impact in the workplace which will have an important effect on their and their family's quality of life. It is important that neither rehabilitation nor vocational rehabilitation are regarded as bolt-on activities after drug treatment but are seen as an integral part of effective management. Publications dealing with return to work are relatively common in rheumatoid arthritis, less common in ankylosing spondylitis and relatively rare in osteoarthritis. Vocational rehabilitation programmes should aim to facilitate job retention or, failing that, to improve the ability to return to work. The process must be started with in the health arena and it has to be recognised that slow or poor practice in the health service can jeopardise the patient's work potential.