Light Work, Sedentary Work, and Mental Limitations: Social Security Disability

A restriction to light or sedentary work can help you get disability benefits, especially if you also have a mental or emotional issue.

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When Social Security receives your application ("claim") for disability benefits, the agency reviews your medical records and function reports in order to make an assessment of your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflects the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment. Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you can do your past jobs or any other work.

Claimants (applicants) who have physical conditions that restrict the type of jobs they can do will often get an RFC that limits them to light or sedentary work. Depending on non-medical factors, like age and work history, a restriction to light duty work or sedentary work can be enough for Social Security to award benefits—especially if the RFC also contains mental limitations.

What Does Social Security Consider Sedentary and Light Work?

When the Social Security Administration (SSA) talks about disability applicants being "restricted to sedentary duty" or "limited to light work," the agency is using these terms in a specific way. "Light work" and "sedentary work" are examples of exertional levels, which is how the SSA classifies the physical demands of all jobs.

Exertional levels are defined based on how much weight you're able to lift and carry as well as whether the jobs require you to be on your feet or stay seated. Sedentary and light exertional levels are defined as follows:

  • Sedentary work means that you are able to sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day and lift up to 10 lbs. occasionally during the day.
  • Light work means that you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day and lift 10 lbs. frequently and 20 lbs. occasionally.

What Jobs Are Considered Sedentary Work?

Sedentary ("sit-down") jobs are usually performed in office or assembly line settings. Examples of sedentary jobs include telemarketer, accountant, or semiconductor assembler. These jobs almost always require you to be able to use your hands frequently to type, push buttons, or hold on to small objects.

What Jobs Are Considered Light Work?

Light jobs are often in the retail or service industries. Examples of light work include cashier, fast food worker, or shelf stocker. These jobs often require you to interact with the public for some time and be able to use your arms to reach overhead, to the front, and to the sides.

Am I Disabled If I'm Restricted to Sedentary Jobs?

The SSA doesn't expect claimants to switch careers or learn a new skill set if they're getting close to full retirement age, so the agency established a set of guidelines called the medical-vocational grid rules (or just "the grid") to determine when claimants over the age of 50 can be found disabled.

If you're over the age of 50, Social Security can find you disabled if you are restricted to sedentary work but you can't perform your past work and you don't have any transferable skills.

If you're under the age of 50—unless you meet the criteria for a listed impairment—you'll have to show that you can't do even basic sedentary jobs before the SSA can find you disabled.

How Do Mental Limitations Affect My Ability to Perform Light or Sedentary Work?

Because your ability to use any skills you learned at your past work at a new job (or your ability to pick up any new skills) plays such an important role in how Social Security applies the grid rules, any mental conditions that restrict how well you can learn and apply new information can be the difference between a finding of disabled or not disabled.

Even moderate mental limitations can have a big impact on whether the SSA thinks you can use any transferable skills you might have gained. Examples of mental restrictions in your RFC than can affect your ability to perform light or sedentary work include:

  • a limitation to simple, routine, repetitive tasks (unskilled work)
  • a requirement to have only infrequent, if any, contact with the general public, coworkers, or supervisors
  • the inability to perform fast-paced or production line work, and
  • a significant amount of time spent "off-task" with reduced productivity.

The agency must consider the combined effect of all your physical and mental limitations when determining your RFC, so make sure that you document any treatment you've received for a mental health condition. Many commonly prescribed medications also have side effects that cause impairments in mood, behavior, and memory. If you're experiencing those side effects, let your doctor know.

How the Grid Rules Apply for Sedentary Work

When applying the grid rules, Social Security takes into account non-medical factors such as a claimant's age, education, past work, and transferable skills. You can see how these factors work with the following examples for claimants with sedentary RFCs.

Rule 201.09

  • Age: 50-54
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Unskilled work or no work within the last 15 years

Equals finding of: Disabled

Rule 201.10

  • Age: 50-54
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work, but skills not transferable

Equals finding of: Disabled

Rule 201.11

  • Age: 50-54
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work with skills that could transfer to other work

Equals finding of: Not Disabled

Rule 201.12

  • Age: 50-54
  • Education: High school grad or more
  • Work History: Unskilled work or no work within the last 15 years

Equals finding of: Disabled

For additional information, see our article on applying for disability at age 50-54.

Can I Be Disabled If I'm Limited to Light Work?

The medical-vocational grid rules also apply to claimants with an RFC for light work if they're over the age of 55, and can lead to a finding of disabled depending on claimants' r education, past work experience, and transferable skills. Here are some examples of how the grid rules work for claimants over the age of 55.

Rule 202.01

  • Age: 55 and over
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Unskilled work or no work within the last 15 years

Equals finding of: Disabled

Rule 202.06

  • Age: 55 and over
  • Education: High school graduate
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work, but skills don't transfer to other jobs

Equals finding of: Disabled

Rule 202.07

  • Age: 55 and over
  • Education: High school graduate
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work, with skills that could transfer to other work

Equals finding of: Not Disabled

For more information, see our article on applying for disability at age 55-59.

Updated October 25, 2022

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