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Employees with chronic pain are treated like second-class citizens

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As Pain Awareness Month 2022 draws to a close, HRZone urges employers to stop neglecting workers with chronic pain. For too long, people with persistent pain have been treated like second-class citizens. It’s time for HR to take action.

28th Sep 2022
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Research commissioned by the BBC earlier this year found that a quarter of people in the UK are living with chronic pain – pain lasting three months or longer. For almost half, this gruelling, relentless experience impacts their ability to either work, leave the house or socialise.

Despite its prevalence, chronic pain is often ignored by employers. A 2020 Harvard Business Review study showed that while 80% of business leaders saw it as important, the same percentage didn’t know how to deal with employees with chronic pain. 

This issue is not just one of a lack of knowledge. Affected employees may avoid telling their employer for fear of being poorly treated or discriminated against. Opening up about chronic pain could even put the individual at risk of feeling forced to leave, as is the case in the story shared here.

People in pain also have a right to pursue a fruitful career, but this often gets overlooked.

Lucy’s experience with arthritis and chronic pain

When in her early 40s, psychologist Dr Lucy Morley Williams was diagnosed with arthritis. The condition caused a great deal of pain, but the only guidance she was given by doctors was to not put on weight and to take paracetamol.

Bereft of support, she took it into her own hands to improve her symptom management with homoeopathic treatments and specialist equipment. “I was still working at the time, and I had to think about my shoes, I had to get a specialist chair. I was working in a disability organisation, and they were very resistant to me having this work chair, which was shocking,” Lucy says.

By 2011, Lucy’s functionality deteriorated rapidly, to the point where she was falling over at times. Her workplace, again, was unsupportive. “They wouldn't even let me move my files up to the top of the filing cabinet so that I didn't have to bend down.”

Having a hostile employer, alongside exacerbating health issues and other serious life events, was too much for Lucy. She felt she had no choice but to resign. “I didn't have the wherewithal or the finances to go to an employment tribunal. At the time, I thought, I just can’t do this.”

Lucy decided to train herself so that she could work independently and have full flexibility and control of how, when and where she worked. “I'm trying to create something for myself where I'm not dependent on an employer. Every time something happens, like my hip dislocating, the pain comes back and something goes wrong. This makes it difficult to be in full-time employment.” 

But it shouldn’t be difficult. It should be a viable option for those experiencing chronic pain to work for an employer who provides financial stability, the right support and an inclusive environment. “I would love to have a job with PAYE and have a guaranteed income with stability and predictability,” Lucy says.

If your organisation requires people who can adapt through adversity, and uncertainty then look no further. For those with chronic pain, perseverance is their middle name.

Treated like second-class citizens

People in pain also have a right to pursue a fruitful career, but this often gets overlooked. “Sometimes when you have a health condition you become almost like a second-class citizen, in terms of employment. You are seen as someone who should be grateful to have ANY job, regardless of whether it suits you or not. Regardless of your skills and talents”. 

Lucy felt forced out of employment due to a shocking lack of support, and increasingly problematic health issues. But she, like others in this situation, didn’t stop having career aspirations. “I still have ambitions. It’s just that they are becoming increasingly more difficult.” 

Employees with chronic pain have a desirable skill set

If we look at the World Economic Forum’s top 10 skills of 2025 at least four of these are skills that someone with persistent pain will have likely acquired and honed to manage their condition.

1. Complex problem solving

People in pain have to be solution-oriented to manage their condition. New types of pain and health problems are likely to emerge over time. On each occasion, they have to undergo research and come up with potential solutions to test out, monitor, assess, and iterate. There is arguably no problem more complex to solve than the elusive phenomenon of chronic pain. 

2. Creativity, originality and initiative

Unexpected issues can often arise for those with chronic pain, especially when in new or unknown environments. Managing symptoms or obstacles can sometimes require out-of-box thinking and creative flair.

3. Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility

Since the start of the pandemic, swathes of businesses have rolled out resilience training to boost this capability across their workforce.

Questioning the effectiveness of this training is a discussion for another time, but if your organisation requires people who can adapt through adversity, and uncertainty then look no further. For those with chronic pain, perseverance is their middle name.

4. Active learning and learning strategies

There is nothing more active about learning than experiencing something excruciating first-hand and doing your utmost to overcome it through adopting different approaches and strategies. People in pain are usually experts in their conditions – they must educate themselves and advocate for themselves if they want to see results.  

How to create a chronic pain-friendly workplace

Here are some ways in which your organisation can create a positive, enabling space for these individuals.

Pain affects people in different ways and therefore those affected will need different types of support.

Recruitment

Be clear in job adverts and the interview process that you are an inclusive employer and that you welcome applications from minority groups, including those with long-term health conditions and disabilities. 

Indicators of your inclusive culture need to show up at various touch points through the hiring process to show authenticity. For example, checking if there are any accessibility considerations to bear in mind to ensure the interview process is comfortable for the interviewee.

Workplace assessments

Arrange for your workplace to be assessed by a disability forum for accessibility. Beyond reasonable adjustments that an employer is legally required to provide to employees, Access to Work provides support and grants to those with a physical or mental health condition or disability.

Shantel Irwin, CEO of Arthritis Action, highlights that this isn’t just important in office jobs. “We also need to remember those in manual jobs who must continue going to work. It’s important that suppliers accommodate those working in manual labour jobs to ensure they aren’t carrying loads that are unsafe or that can cause damage in the long term.”

Ask the experts

Pain affects people in different ways and therefore those affected will need different types of support. Don’t assume what is best for the individual suffering. Reach out to them and listen to their needs.

People with chronic pain don’t want to feel like they are a burden, and may be embarrassed or reticent to say what they need. For them to truly open up, it may take strong relationship building, sharing of your own vulnerabilities and active encouragement.

Also, consider bringing in people with health issues as consultants to support your efforts to improve inclusivity. Paying people even on a contractor basis recognises their value and worth – and helps bolster their skills and experience.

Wellbeing rooms

Consider how the workplace can be designed in a way to support people’s different needs. For example, those with chronic pain or other health conditions may need to take medication throughout the day, which could initially lead to side effects such as drowsiness and nausea. Those affected may also need regular breaks to rest or do physio. This is hard to do in an open-plan office, warehouse, or shop floor.

Creating a private, quiet space that is functional and inclusive for all employees in times of need will help ease the burden.

Having this wellbeing space doesn’t mean employees should be forced back to the physical workplace, though. The pandemic has proved we can work from all sorts of places and get the job done.

Those with chronic pain who can work remotely if they wish will be able to create an optimal working environment for their condition. That being said, the physical workplace should also accommodate their needs to signal that these workers are valued and welcome to connect in person with colleagues. 

Flexible working is also essential because the level of pain experienced is not consistent. Someone may have to use crutches one day and be walking around with no support just fine the next day. Pain flares up and down, and needs will differ based on this.

We must not let these individuals feel like second-class citizens any longer.

Time for change

Current figures suggest there are likely people in your organisation experiencing chronic pain but suffering in silence. Past employees may have felt let down by the business and therefore left, like Lucy. This is not OK.

It is the responsibility of HR and business leaders to ensure ALL employees feel accommodated at work, as comfortable as possible to get the job done and enabled to grow. We must not let these individuals feel like second-class citizens any longer.

Useful links

Pain UK – An alliance of charities providing a voice for people in pain

Pain Relief Foundation – A charity for specialised research into the causes and treatment of chronic pain in humans, which also offers support and social groups

The British Pain Society – The oldest and largest multidisciplinary professional organisation in the field of pain within the UK

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