A Guide for Employees Living With Chronic Pain

August 12, 2019

Worker with chronic back pain.
Ben Eubanks

Many Americans live with health issues, but one key challenge is managing chronic pain at work. Living with chronic pain can range from a simple nuisance to a recurring nightmare, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Workers can develop chronic pain from illnesses, injuries or even mental stress, leading to compromised health. However, it's possible to manage ongoing pain in the workplace if the right approach is taken.

Impacts of Chronic Pain

Similar to the workplace challenges of balance disorders, stress and fatigue can affect perceived pain and discomfort. While short-term pain can be a minor hurdle for workers, long-term and chronic pain can lead to weakness, apathy, moodiness and other similar symptoms, according to WebMD.

One of the obvious impacts of chronic pain is a lack of focus. Someone's focus is greatly diminished by ongoing pain, whether that focus is personal or professional in nature. This can lead to lower productivity and performance if the problem persists, but employers have ways to help workers manage their chronic pain.

Managing Chronic Pain at Work

The U.S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers options, alternatives and ideas for how to support workers living with chronic pain. The options include everything from working through fatigue and stress to offering equipment and other tools to support worker needs. For example, a worker with back pain may need a standing or reclining workstation. Alternatively, a team member with chronic foot pain may have trouble commuting to work, necessitating a work-from-home arrangement while his foot heals.

It's worth noting that many workers dealing with ongoing pain due to medical issues may also rely on medication to support daily functioning. It's important to point out that prescription drugs, while they may help with pain, may reduce the individual's ability to focus and perform on the job. This may be a safety issue depending on the job duties of the affected individual.

3 Ways to Accommodate Those Suffering From Chronic Pain

Employers should have a dialogue with employees to understand their needs and ensure that they are able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. However, if the employees are open to ideas, the three suggestions below can offer options for reducing chronic pain symptoms and ensuring a safe and productive workforce:

  • Ergonomic adjustments can help to alleviate some symptoms and improve workplace health and well-being.
  • Standing desk options may offer relief for back, neck, shoulder or wrist pain, if the pain is associated with long periods of sitting at work.
  • Remote work arrangements may be a necessity to help accommodate certain types of pain on an as-needed basis.

At the end of the day, chronic pain is not a simple problem, and there are no simple "cure all" solutions. However, by taking a proactive approach and looking for ways to alleviate discomfort while offering more flexible options for workers, employers can help to maintain a positive and healthy environment that minimizes stress and other triggers that may exacerbate chronic pain.

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