Chronic Pain: How Employers Can Support Employees Living with Chronic Pain

Shawn Meehan, GB’s General Manager- Self Insurance, recently participated in the Pain Revolution Ride, a 7-day cycle tour from 16-23 March 2019 in Tasmania.

We thought that there is no better time to discuss the impacts of chronic pain in the workplace, how employers can support employees experiencing chronic pain and some effective strategies to assist workplaces to create a supportive environment.

But first, what is chronic pain?

If your pain has lasted beyond the time expected for healing following surgery, trauma or other condition—usually three months—then it may be considered a chronic illness. Conditions such as migraine, osteoporosis, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments are well recognised chronic diseases.

According to Pain Australia, chronic pain lasts more than the time expected for healing following trauma, surgery or other condition . It may also exist without a clear reason at all.

It affects approximately one in five Australians, and this prevalence increases to one in three people over the age of 65.

How does chronic pain impact workplaces?

There are sadly a large number of people in the workplace that suffer from chronic pain.

Chronic pain is something that affects workers daily and can put a lot of stress on their day-to-day life — even affecting their work, and emotional health and wellbeing.

Pain Australia stated that chronic pain is the most common reason people of working age drop out of the workforce, with just arthritis and back problems alone leading to 40% of forced retirements. About 90% of employees with severe or very severe pain report some impact to their work.

If an employee is experiencing pain for over three months, it may be considered as a chronic illness. Although chronic pain can be a symptom of other disease, it can also be a disease in its own right, characterised by changes within the central nervous system.

Subsequently, living with chronic pain can have considerable implications on an employee’s well-being and can have negative social, psychological and economic effects.

Developing a supportive workplace can support those living with chronic pain and can help them be more productive and happier at work. For example, employees with a manger who is supportive and lets them adjust or control their work routine are more likely to remain employed.

As chronic pain is invisible, a person experiencing this condition may feel stigmatised and misunderstood by their co-workers. This can make the workplace a challenging environment.

Employers should therefore create a workplace culture and systems that destigmatise pain. This is a critical step to creating positive outcomes for an organisation and its employees.

Chronic pain in the workplace can affect employees in a range of ways such as:

  • Movement - for example, employees not being able to lift or bend over
  • Mental health - employees may require a less social setting, or brighter area, such as a window office
  • Additional time off – employees may require additional time off for therapy and health care visits
  • Frequent breaks – they may need additional time to .tep away from the desk, go for a walk, make insurance calls, or schedule appointments.

Employers can assist in helping to identify and support the implementation of strategies to assist employees experiencing chronic pain.

Some of these strategies may include:

Education: Fostering a supportive workplace environment and raising awareness about the challenges of living with chronic pain. Educational resources, such as hanging posters in prominent places (use our GB Poster Designer tool to make your own!), and making chronic pain something easily discussed are all great ways to raise awareness.

Providing information on healthy eating: It's been said that you are what you eat, and that's definitely true when it comes to chronic pain. Dr. Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health stated that, “A lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation."

Additional Support: such as allowing an employee additional time for health care visits, extra rest periods, shorter shifts, the option to work longer when well, or other exceptions can assist to make their a more supportive work environment.

Promote regular breaks: a good way for workers to manage chronic pain is to take regular breaks. Encouraging workers to step away from their jobs when they need to is important.
Ergonomic assessment: an ergonomic assessment of the employee’s workspace may be required. This may highlight any necessary modifications, which can assist the employee to feel more comfortable at work.

Getting adequate rest and exercises: healthy habits go a long way in pain management and better overall morale. Encouraging workers to regularly exercise (maybe by offering gym discounts) and get the rest that they need (not having them work long hours, and if need be to take a long lunch in order to fit in a nap) are all ways that employers can promote and encourage healthy habits.

Implementing these strategies can significantly improve the wellbeing of employees experiencing chronic pain. Collaborative workplace strategies to manage pain and the negative effects on productivity and wellbeing are essential.

With chronic pain being responsible for approximately 9.9 million absent days from work each year, making a few of these changes can improve the productivity of employees across an organisation.

The best thing that employers can do is raise awareness of chronic pain. A great way to do that is by educating workers. Use this link to create your own poster today, and place in prominent places to be read and used as a reference by workers.

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