Most people experience physical pain at some point in their lives, but for some, it can be debilitating and make day-to-day life difficult. Persistent or chronic pain, lasting longer than three months, is now classified as either chronic primary pain or chronic secondary pain.
Recent research has shed light on the connection between chronic pain and trauma, as trauma can lead to alterations in pain perception and regulation. As an employer, it’s essential to be aware of these connections and find effective ways to support employees who experience it.
Chronic pain has a significant impact on the lives of millions of people in the UK, affecting approximately 28 million individuals. The repercussions on businesses and the economy are substantial, as it can lead to absenteeism and, in some cases, a complete withdrawal from work. Government data reflects this trend, showing a 31 percent increase in back and neck issues and a 22 percent increase in mental health conditions causing people to be absent from work between Q2 2019 and Q2 2022.
How Chronic Pain Affects Employees
Chronic pain can take a toll on an individual’s physical and emotional well-being. It often results in disturbed sleep, fatigue, low mood, anxiety, stress, depression, lack of focus, and difficulty in maintaining a work-life balance. The side effects of medications used to manage the pain can also add to the challenges. In fact, research shows that, although findings vary, up to 85 percent of people with longterm pain experience depression.
Individuals with chronic pain often worry about how their colleagues perceive their condition, especially if they need to take a significant amount of time off work or struggle to complete tasks. This fear of losing their job can be overwhelming, and for some, it can lead to a decision to stop working altogether due to the immense impact on their mental health.
Five Ways to Support Employees with Chronic Pain
Supporting employees with chronic pain is crucial for their well-being and the overall success of your organisation. Here are five initiatives that can make a significant difference in helping employees manage their pain at work.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Open and honest communication is the foundation of any supportive workplace. Providing various communication channels for employees creates an open culture where they feel empowered to speak out about their issues. Create an environment that reduces stigma, ensuring that anything an employee shares is met with compassion and kindness, whether it’s with a line manager or a mental health/physical first aider. Being honest and making sure the individual feels supported and heard is essential.
Adapt the Individual’s Role
Keeping individuals with chronic pain in the workforce is not only beneficial for their mental health but also their physical well-being. Engage in a conversation with the employee about what they feel comfortable doing at work and look for ways to adapt their role to meet their needs. Implement plans that help the individual continue to develop their career and feel valued. Being flexible about taking time off for medical appointments and providing more regular breaks will be highly appreciated.
Training for Leaders and Line Managers
To foster a more supportive workplace, it’s crucial to provide training for leaders and line managers to help them understand what chronic pain is and how it can impact an individual’s life. This education can reduce stigma in the workplace and make employees feel more understood. Additionally, it enables leaders to put the right support in place. Sharing stories of senior leaders or managers who have experienced chronic pain themselves can be particularly motivating and reassuring.
Check the Workstation Setup
Whether an employee with longterm pain works in an office or from home, their workstation should be set up to ensure their body is well supported. This includes assessing the suitability of their desk, chair, lighting, and other ergonomic considerations. Every condition has different needs, so it’s essential to work with the employee to determine the best setup for their specific situation.
Waymark Employees to Outside Support
While creating a supportive working environment is crucial, it’s essential to acknowledge that you cannot provide all the necessary support yourself. In this regard, guide employees to seek additional support outside your organisation, such as resources from occupational health, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and NHS resources.
Fight Chronic Pain Today
Chronic pain is a pervasive and debilitating condition that affects millions of individuals in the UK, with far-reaching implications for businesses and the economy. As an employer, recognising the challenges that employees with chronic pain face is the first step toward providing effective support.
By fostering open communication, adapting roles, training leaders and managers, ensuring proper workstation setups, and guiding employees to external resources, you can create a workplace that not only supports those with chronic pain but also benefits the organisation as a whole. Addressing the needs of employees with chronic pain is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic move that can enhance overall productivity, employee well-being, and the organisation’s reputation as an empathetic and supportive employer.
Dr Glenn Mason
Glenn is a highly specialist Counselling Psychologist and Psychotherapist and has regularly contributed to local, national and international media on psychology, trauma, chronic pain, PTSD, and duty of care psychology. His practice is informed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Compassion Focused Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Narrative Exposure Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing.