Liz Sheffield

Destigmatizing Invisible Illness, Part 3: Chronic Pain

Flu season turns everyone into a detective. One day you walk into the office and sense something’s different — you notice tissues in the garbage can and you can hear the muffled sound of people covering sneezes. It never takes long to figure out who’s trying to work through the symptoms (that is, who’s going to accidentally get the entire office sick in less than a week).

When someone’s working while experiencing chronic pain, on the other hand, chances are your detective skills won’t kick in. Employees with this particular kind of pain have what’s called an invisible illness. It can deliver pain that lasts for weeks, months or even years. This issue affects 100 million Americans, according to the University of Michigan — more than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.

Here’s how you can start addressing it.

Understand the Effects of Chronic Pain

Knowing what this kind of pain is and how it impacts your business is the first step toward helping your employees manage it.

While ongoing pain may be the result of an injury or illness, in other cases there may not be an obvious source. It can impact every area of the body, but according to the University of Michigan, the most commonly affected areas include:

  • Back pain: 27 percent
  • Neck pain: 15 percent
  • Headache or migraine: 15 percent
  • Facial pain: 4 percent

Of American adults suffering from chronic pain, 36 million miss work every year, and the combined costs of treatment and productivity losses total $635 billion. Millions turn to opioids to help manage pain, opening themselves and their employers up to new risks.

People with this condition also often experience additional health issues, such as fatigue, disturbed sleep and mood fluctuations. These symptoms make it difficult to perform normal activities and can lead to feelings of hopelessness. It’s not surprising that the University of Michigan found that 3 in 4 patients dealing with this pain report feeling depressed.

Reinforce Positive Conversations

Aside from the symptoms and stressors described above, invisible illnesses like this one can make for less-than-positive interactions at work. Colleagues may be less understanding or even express doubts that someone is ill at all. An essential part of advocating for employees is reducing the stigma associated with invisible illnesses.

“I was told I was being ridiculous and overly dramatic, that I was ‘letting kids down and setting a bad example’ by not pushing myself,” said one middle school teacher with an immune disorder.

Reactions like these make it difficult for employees to feel supported. For this reason, it’s essential that employers work to educate themselves and their employees about what it’s like to deal with this health concern. Some ways to reinforce positive conversations include sharing online resources that describe the realities of chronic pain or setting up in-office wellness workshops with health care professionals who can educate employees and answer questions.

Finally, encourage your workforce to be honest about their needs, and listen without prying or asking for more information than is necessary. Reassure them that their rights are protected at your workplace.

Provide Well-Being Resources for all Employees

Unlike many acute illnesses, chronic pain generally can’t be cured — but it can be managed. As you look for ways to create a supportive environment and provide wellness resources, review your staff’s physical work environment. Ask for suggestions from your employees with pain and see what changes you can make to accommodate them. For instance, you might provide a private space where employees can go to manage pain symptoms.

Flexible schedules are another way to support employees dealing with this issue, since the symptoms and appointments associated with chronic conditions can stand in the way of getting to work on time or keeping standard hours. If you offer this resource, work to support a workplace culture where employees won’t be indirectly penalized or judged when they take advantage of it.

Some people find pain relief through practices like yoga, massage, meditation or mindfulness. If you can offer classes on-site or discounts for local practices, you can provide a fun, accessible way to reap the health benefits for all your employees. Similarly, look to offer a health plan that gives employees access to opioid alternatives like physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments or innovative treatments like spinal cord stimulation and radiofrequency ablation.

Chronic pain is a fact of life for many employees. When employers don’t acknowledge the realities of this invisible illness in the workplace, it can negatively impact engagement and productivity for everyone. You can make a real difference in your workforce’s life by hearing out employee concerns, offering wellness resources and reinforcing positive conversations about a chronic condition that impacts so many Americans.

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