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Employee wellbeing: how to support employees riding the waves of chronic pain

Chronic pain is the enemy of productivity, costing businesses thousands each year –  but the human cost is far greater. Employers need to offer flexibility and above all, kindness, to employees who experience this. 

4th Feb 2020
Editor HRZone
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Stressed overworked middle aged businesswoman office worker taking off glasses
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We all experience pain throughout our lives. We’ve grazed our knees from falling over as a young child, we’ve felt the throbbing sensation at the back of our throat as a nasty cold kicks in. In today’s digital world we’ve also likely experienced some form of pain from poor posture, due to long hours sitting at our desks.

It’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent the condition is, but a study in 2016 by the British Pain Society found it affected two-fifths of the UK population.

We know what aches, cramps and burns feel like. We’ve also all experienced some degree of emotional pain –  whether from a death of a loved one, a relationship break up, or a mental health condition.

Acute versus chronic pain

Acute pain (although an unwanted feeling) has its uses. It alerts us to something being wrong – of potential bodily harm. 

Chronic pain is different – and far more complex. Broadly defined as lasting for 12 weeks or more (and for many, lasting a lifetime), the condition is associated with a highly sensitive and over-responsive nervous system caused by a mixture of biological, social and psychological factors.

Pain signals could still be shooting off despite an injury being fully healed – or despite an injury never existing. It could also be the symptom of an ongoing illness.

The most common types of chronic pain include: lower back pain, neck pain, chronic migraines and headaches, post-surgical pain, post-trauma pain, arthritic pain, neurogenic pain (caused by nerve damage) and psychopathic pain (not caused by disease, injury, or nerve damage).

The silent epidemic

With a lack of recent research on chronic pain, it’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent the condition is, but a study in 2016 by the British Pain Society found it affected two-fifths of the UK population.

Unsurprisingly, pain is the enemy of productivity, costing the EU approximately €441 billion a year. It leaves affected employees to make what may feel like a ‘lose-lose’ decision: take sick leave but fear judgment or negative repercussions from an unforgiving employer, or work through the pain but risk being seen as under-performing because tasks may be completed more slowly and clarity of thought is likely impacted. Workers with chronic pain also have an increased risk of leaving employment for a prolonged period or even permanently.

Encourage an open and honest conversation about the employee’s pain, how it’s affecting them and their work, and what they think they need to better support them.

You’re likely to have hard-working, talented people within your organisation experiencing some form of chronic pain. Often referred to as the ‘invisible disability’ or the ‘silent epidemic’, workers may be suffering quietly without you knowing of the pain they are in – or you may know but be unsure of how to support someone facing such a relentlessly debilitating condition. 

When equipped with the right knowledge and tools, however, HR professionals and managers can offer meaningful, sustainable help to affected workers.

As someone who experiences pain on an almost daily basis, I’d like to offer a few useful insights that have helped me in my work and may help you support your employees...

1. Working through the pain

Of course, it all depends on the severity of the pain and what each individual can manage, but the NHS advises people to stay in employment.

This does not mean powering on through usual working responsibilities and routine no matter what. Adjustments will likely be needed.

Encourage an open and honest conversation about the employee’s pain, how it’s affecting them and their work, and what they think they need to better support them.

Be flexible and accommodating but don’t assume you know what is best: yes, for some working from home a few days a week will be a blessing, but for others the regular walk to work will be key to pain management – but they may need to leave early to avoid the stress of commuting in rush hour. 

The key is to create a psychologically safe environment in which people feel comfortable with advocating for themselves and their health needs. If they feel safe to speak up, they will let you know how they can be better supported. 

If you allow affected employees the changes they require, the appreciation and gratitude you’ll receive for listening, empathising and assisting them will be huge. What may seem like small changes can reap tremendous benefits.

2. Riding the waves 

Be aware that pain can come and go in waves, with no rhyme nor reason. I sometimes have a few months a year where my pain is very mild or non-existent and then despite no change in my lifestyle... WHAM! The near-daily pain hits me again. Why? I have no idea and I don’t think I will ever know.

Of course in these good periods, affected employees may be far more sprightly, sociable and productive. Notice and embrace this – bring up in conversation how things ‘seem’ better for them and ask if that’s the case. Don’t assume it’s a permanent change, however. Chronic pain is a mystery and is unlikely to just disappear overnight.

There’s no easy solution from an employer’s perspective, but having a bit more of an understanding is a good start.

At the other end of the spectrum, severity of pain can increase with a stifling vengeance, and this could mean sick leave is required.

If an employee does need to take a prolonged period of leave, as in all instances keep the communication going, but be sensitive, supportive and flexible.

An employee may not feel ready to return full-time, so make sure they’re aware that a gradual return is available as well as changes to work pattern if feasible.

Remember: pain often comes in waves. For affected employees to ride these waves, they need their employer to be flexible.

3. Pain’s closest friend

It’s no big surprise that people with chronic pain are at higher risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. 

This means chronic pain patients have to go above and beyond what the ‘average’ person requires to protect themselves. The usual preventatives of mindfulness, counselling, regular exercise, nutritional diet, socialising etc will be even more important, but at the same time even harder to stick to, because pain makes everything harder.

Catch-22s start to arise. For example, when ‘I’m in pain so I can’t come out tonight’ becomes someone’s broken record, loneliness creeps in. The solution to loneliness? More human interaction – but the extent of pain pushes them away from so many social moments.

There’s no easy solution from an employer’s perspective, but having a bit more of an understanding is a good start.

Be aware of the common signs of mental ill-health (lack of interest in things, depressed or irritable mood etc) so that you can spot potential red flags. Arrange regular check-ins or feed the conversation into your regular one-to-ones about work.

Of course, you can encourage participation in any of the wellbeing initiatives or services available through work, but this should be in addition to, not in replacement of, giving affected individuals your listening ear.

Making the journey easier

Chronic pain isn’t a health condition that can be cured simply through popping some prescribed pills and getting extra rest. Those with chronic pain will be somewhere along their journey of seeking recovery. They will be putting on their scientist hat, testing out theories through trial and error. They will be exploring new medication options, having scans, undergoing surgery, experimenting with non-pharmaceutical interventions, making new lifestyle choices, maybe even joining up to trials – all in an effort to improve their situation, even just a little.

This is all happening in tandem with battling pain and its comorbidities, on top of trying to manage work and domestic jobs, and maintain relationships with loved ones.

It’s a lot.

Managers and HR professionals can’t take any of these tasks off of the plate of an employee with chronic pain, but they can be empathetic, allow for flexibility and show kindness. 

Interested in this topic? Read Why investing in employee health is good for business.

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