Chronic illness can affect every facet of a person’s life, or it can impact just one. It includes everything from fibromyalgia to Crohn’s disease to depression and everything in between. As a result, many employees have to manage chronic pain at work.
More than 50 million Americans live with chronic pain; that’s 1 in every 5 people. You—or your employee—may never be able to solve their health issues. That said, there are things you can both do to make their working lives more comfortable and support them in performing their job to the best of their ability.
Dealing with chronic pain at work doesn’t have to hold someone back in being great at what they do. I should know, I’ve had chronic pain for over five years, and I do content marketing, podcasting, and book publishing.
So, what can you do to support employees facing chronic pain at work?
Accept it’s unpredictable
Many chronic health issues can flare up without notice. They can also get better in what seems like a magical way (although this is less likely to happen).
As humans, we really like patterns. So, we may look for them and feel frustrated when we can’t find them.
Or, if you do go through an employees’ absence history and find a pattern, it may be worth investigating or enquiring about what happens around this time.
Stress exacerbates many health conditions, and work is one of the biggest causes of stress for most of us.
Could it be that something is happening at work that’s elevating their stress, but they haven’t felt able to talk about it?
Gently raising the subject can make them feel comfortable discussing it with you.
Perhaps there’s an aspect of their job that they could use some assistance with? Or, if they’re taking more time off than usual, are they working too much? Or too little?
Balance their workload
We often associate workplace stress with having too much to do. Not having enough to do or being under-stimulated can also be triggers, though.
Our brains like novelty, particularly when we have conditions like ADHD. When daily life starts to feel too automatic, we grow bored, our brains switch to auto-pilot, our stress levels increase, and our work quality goes down.
Keeping the pace of work consistent and regular means employees know what their employer expects from them. It gives them a level of stability they don’t have from other areas of their life, like their health.
While you want the pace to be regular, you can still vary what they’re doing to keep it interesting.
Giving them a task that’s just outside of their comfort zone will mean they get to challenge their skills. They can focus on that and expand their horizons. This can be a great distraction from chronic pain at work.
When we’re in a state of flow, working on something that’s somewhere between our current ability and a challenge, our brains are unable to process pain signals. So, for that little while, we get to experience a life without pain.
Reaching flow is how I managed to publish 19 books despite having chronic pain and fatigue (including particularly bad pain in my hands some days).
Flow can really be a game changer. It’s a lot easier to experience it when what you’re doing requires much more than auto-pilot.
Trust what they tell you
There can sometimes be a cynicism toward people with chronic health issues. People assume we’re putting it on or playing it up for attention/benefits.
In my experience, most people who have these types of health concerns are more likely to play it down because they don’t want to be a burden on the people around them. They probably already feel like enough of one.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but in most cases, when an employee is coming to you for assistance or advice, they’ve spent days, weeks, months, or even years battling it on their own. They’re coming to you because they trust you and need your help. It’s only fair to return the favor and support them in addressing their chronic pain at work.
Flexibility is the key to managing a chronic illness flare up. Symptoms don’t always behave in a logical pattern, which means anyone struggling has to listen to their mind and body. It’s easier to say than do, but it does help.
This may mean:
- regular movement instead of sitting at a desk all day;
- working from a different location;
- attending fewer meetings;
- wearing noise-cancelling headphones;
- turning off notifications at some times of the day;
- or something else.
Find equipment to make their life easier
What sort of adaptable equipment could you use to help someone with their chronic pain at work?
Could you get a stand for their laptop, so that they can adjust their screen’s height? A donut cushion to take the strain off their back? A more ergonomic chair?
There are lots of accommodations you can make to employees’ workspaces that make it more comfortable and accessible for them.
Sometimes all they need is a better mouse, or a desk that’s in a location closer to the bathroom/stairs.
Make meetings more accessible
Most meetings are neither accessible nor inclusive. They’re long, demand a lot of concentration, and require sitting still.
This is similar to classrooms, where teachers instruct us to sit still and listen to someone talk for long periods, then ask for our opinions.
But if you’re struggling with any symptoms, whether that’s hay fever, pain, restlessness, or pretty much anything else, sitting still for any length of time will be challenging.
To make the discussion topic more accessible, consider sharing an agenda in advance, shortening the meeting, turning it into an email, or recording a short video instead.
If you really need the meeting, can you find ways to make it more accommodating with regular breaks? How about sitting those who need it closer to the door, or allowing attendees to doodle or fidget?
Dealing with chronic pain at work is stressful, and work is one of the main causes of stress in someone’s life. It’s only fair that employers make accommodations to help with this.
Small adaptations can make a big difference, especially when they come from someone’s employer. The assumption will always be that employers don’t care and are only out for themselves. That assumption will only change by setting an example within your business and providing employees with support when it’s needed. They’ll repay you with their loyalty and hard work.
If you’re looking for other ways to support employees dealing with chronic pain at work, ensuring they have a strong professional support network can make a big difference. From chronic illness/disability employee resource groups to wellness communities that can help them manage their symptoms, Workrowd puts real connection at their fingertips.