Unless you live with chronic pain, it’s impossible to understand how far it reaches into every aspect of your life. It’s not only about managing the physical pain and your mental health. It’s also about modifying everything you do, including holding a steady, full time job. That’s why taking a proactive approach to managing your chronic pain in the workplace is an vital component to your overall health and well-being.
Chronic pain at work 101
For millions of employees with chronic pain, workdays require long commutes and hours of sitting at a desk using various types of technology as well as early mornings and late evenings. Others work in industries that require constant physical activity like teaching, construction, retail or restaurants. While the jobs themselves may be rewarding, the work environments can make pain levels worse.
Whether you’re on your feet all day or confined to a desk, a full time job can quickly take its toll on you, especially if you suffer from a chronic pain condition like a herniated or bulging disc, degenerative disc disease (DDD), rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.
The best thing you can do when it comes to managing chronic pain in the workplace is to be realistic about your expectations and steadfast with your self care plan. A comprehensive self care plan includes managing your physical pain and the psychological effects it can have on you. If you can strike a balance between the two, that goes a long way towards helping you be a productive employee.
Want to know more about creating a self care plan? Check out this video:
Understanding your legal rights to disability accommodations
The first step in creating your pain management plan in the workplace starts with understanding your rights. Under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide “reasonable” accommodations for employees with disabilities. This means you can request any accommodation that is considered reasonable.
The ADA uses a general definition of disability: “a person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment.” Chronic pain is certainly a condition that can qualify and that may place limitations on your abilities.
For some people living with chronic pain, their limitations are more severe, so they must be transparent about their needs with their employers. For others, especially if you work at a small company, asking for accommodations may not be easy.
It can feel embarrassing and awkward to admit you live in chronic pain to your employer. It may feel as if your performance will be judged more harshly. Or perhaps you may feel worried that your co-workers will feel slighted if you get certain accommodations and they don’t.
These feelings are normal, but the reality is if reasonable accommodations can help you be more productive in the workplace, that’s a win-win for you and your employer.
Important tips for requesting accommodations
When making a request from your employer, consider the following:
- You do not need to have a particular accommodation in mind before you make a request to your employer.
- You can make a request for a reasonable accommodation at any time in your employment.
- Your request can be spoken or in writing.
- You do not have to include any wording such as “reasonable accommodation,” “disability,” or “Rehabilitation Act” in your request.
- Your request does not have to specify a particular accommodation.
You can review more information about requesting a reasonable accommodation here.
Tips for managing chronic pain in the workplace
Depending on your industry, work schedule and responsibilities, there are lots of things you can do to manage your pain. Let’s look at practical tips for a variety of workplaces:
For office jobs and sitting down
If you work in an office environment where you sit at a computer all day, think about simple modifications you can make to ease your pain:
- Take regular breaks to stand up and take short walks even if it’s a quick walk down the hall to refill your water bottle.
- Be aware of your posture while sitting: shoulders rolled back, chin up and lower back (lumbar) supported.
- Use proper computer positioning (keyboard and display height).
- Take quick technology breaks. Look away from your screen every 20 minutes to minimize eye, head and neck strain.
- Stay hydrated. Keep a bottle of water at your desk and sip throughout the day.
- Focus on your breathing with relaxation techniques.
- Monitor your body at the end of the day. Address aches and pains in the evening with heat and cold therapy or pain medication as needed.
- Request reasonable accommodations to help you work more effectively. These can include tools such as adjustable workstations (like standing desks), alternative keyboards, alternative mice, supine workstations and ergonomic equipment.
On your feet or standing all day
If your workplace requires you to be on your feet all day (e.g. teaching, cooking, serving food, etc), your pain management plan may include the following:
- Develop a plan based on low intensity and high intensity days.
- Be open with your students, coworkers, etc about your high pain days.
- Find a coworker to assist you on high pain or high intensity days.
- Invest in proper footwear with proper arch support.
- Stand and sit with proper posture.
- If you have regular breaks built into your day, use them to sit down and rest.
- Build in an hour of rest time at home every day for healing. Use this time to take a warm bath or use a heating pad on achy muscles.
- Understand your limitations (physical and mental health) and don’t overdo it.
- Request reasonable accommodations such as an aide or assistant, a modified break schedule and stand-lean stools.
Industrial workplace ergonomics
If your workplace requires you to perform hard labor or is physically demanding, it’s crucial to be extra careful about your chronic pain and understand industrial ergonomics:
- Follow all safety guidelines like wearing your hearing protection, eye protection, helmet, respirator, safety gloves and comfortable work shoes. These guidelines are vital in protecting your body from the physical harm of manual labor.
- Wear your PPE at all times.
- Use proper lifting techniques when lifting heavy objects.
- Abide by maximum lifting weights.
- Get massages regularly even if they’re just for 20-30 minutes.
- Stretch before and after activity.
- Use relaxation techniques throughout the day to steady breathing and stressors.
- Incorporate hot and cold therapy into your evening routine by alternating with a heating pad and ice to ease tension in sore muscles.
- Discuss your situation with your employer to determine which workplace accommodations are available.
- Request reasonable accommodations such as anti-vibration gloves, anti-vibration seats and anti-vibration tool wraps and carts.
Remember: if you take prescription pain medication for your chronic pain, you may need to adjust the timing of your dosage so it does not interfere with your work schedule.
Workplace responsibilities can be exhausting both physically and mentally when you’re functioning at your best. Life in the workplace is often significantly harder when you’re living with chronic pain. By staying focused on your pain management strategies, knowing your limitations and keeping a positive attitude, you can find moments of relief and maintain your workplace productivity.
How do you manage chronic pain in the workplace?
Tell us about your pain journey in the comments.
What topics related to chronic pain in the workplace would you like to see us explore?
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
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