We dedicate a significant portion of our lives to work, but what about when we’re also grappling with chronic pain? It’s a reality for approximately 3.37 million Australians, and surprisingly, 68.3% of them fall within the working-age group. This means that a substantial number of us are navigating the challenges of chronic pain while trying to maintain our professional lives.
Unlike temporary pain, chronic pain refers to pain that persists for an extended period, typically lasting for at least three to six months or beyond. It can be caused by various factors, such as injuries, underlying medical conditions, or neurological disorders. Chronic pain and chronic illness can encompass a broad range of health conditions that last for an extended duration and may include autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and more.
Understanding chronic pain and illness
Someone with chronic pain or illness may experience a wide array of symptoms, including persistent pain, fatigue, reduced mobility, cognitive difficulties, and emotional distress. These symptoms can fluctuate in intensity, making it challenging for employees to predict how they will feel on any given day.
A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare suggests that 1 in 5 Australians aged 45 and over have experienced chronic pain in some form, and those with chronic pain are more likely to:
- Be female and older
- Have long-term conditions
- Take extended sick leave or stay longer in hospital
- Report limitations to daily activities.
Anyone can develop chronic pain, but the reasons we might experience it depends on a range of genetic, physical and psychological factors. Environmental factors like working a physically demanding job or having a prior injury can also trigger chronic pain. Sometimes chronic pain has no identifiable cause. This can lead to reduced activity, stress, sleep disturbances and poor mental health.
Challenges at work
Dealing with persistent discomfort and health challenges can significantly impact our productivity, wellbeing, and overall quality of life.
One added challenge is the invisibility of chronic pain or illness to others. Unlike acute pain, which might have visible symptoms like swelling or limping, chronic pain doesn’t necessarily manifest externally. This can pose significant challenges in a workplace setting, as colleagues and supervisors might not fully comprehend the extent of an individual’s struggles. Employees dealing with chronic pain might appear fine on the surface, leading to misconceptions that they are not truly experiencing discomfort.
There are significant barriers to dealing with chronic pain at work. These can include:
- Reduced productivity: Chronic pain or illness can hinder an employee’s ability to focus and sustain attention on tasks, leading to reduced productivity and efficiency.
- Absenteeism and presenteeism: Individuals with chronic pain or illness may take more sick leave or, in some cases, resort to presenteeism, where they attend work despite being unwell, which can further impact their performance and health.
- Physical and mental strain: Coping with persistent pain or illness can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, affecting an employee’s mental wellbeing and ability to cope with workplace challenges.
- Stigma and misunderstanding: Employees with chronic pain or illness may face stigma or lack of understanding from colleagues and management, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and reduce their sense of belonging.
Managing pain at work: strategies for employees
While managing chronic pain or illness at work presents its share of challenges, many individuals with chronic pain or illness develop high levels of resilience, empowerment and improved coping skills. Overcoming these obstacles can lead to personal growth, increased self-awareness, and a profound appreciation for life’s small victories.
These positive outcomes can serve as a source of motivation and inspiration not only for the individuals themselves but also for their colleagues and peers. By shedding light on these stories of triumph, we can collectively foster a more supportive and compassionate work environment for everyone, regardless of the challenges they may face.
Managing chronic pain at work requires a combination of self-care strategies and effective communication outside of medical help. Here are some steps you can take if you’re concerned about pain.
- Tell your team: Communicate openly with your supervisor or HR about your condition and how it impacts your work. Discuss potential accommodations or adjustments that could ease the burden and enable you to perform optimally.
- Adjust your schedule: Prioritise tasks, break them into manageable chunks, and set realistic deadlines to avoid overwhelming yourself. Use time management tools or apps to stay organised, if helpful.
- Take care of yourself: The aim of self-care is to manage pain and stress, which can worsen symptoms. Incorporate relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and exercise into your daily routine to improve overall wellbeing.
- Ask for accommodations: Request reasonable workplace accommodations, such as flexible work hours, ergonomic equipment, or remote work options, which can enhance your comfort and productivity.
- Seek support: Reach out to colleagues, friends, or support groups for encouragement and understanding. Discussing your challenges with others who have experienced similar situations can be helpful. You can also speak to your EAP for guidance.
Since everyone’s experience with pain is unique, finding the right strategies may take time. It’s a good idea to regularly assess your methods and adapt as needed to ensure your pain is managed while you work.
Taking proactive steps to prioritise your mental health is essential, and your Converge Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offers valuable support. By reaching out through the app or calling their dedicated helpline, you can connect with trained professionals who can provide confidential counselling, offer guidance on managing stress and work-life balance, and assist with various personal and professional challenges. You can reach your EAP on 1300 687 327 or directly through the Converge App.