Managing chronic pain at work

Benefits of working

Besides providing a regular source of income, working is important to most people in several ways.  People need to feel productive.  Being able to work boosts self-esteem and helps you to feel at your productive best. The challenges of work, a job well done, and interactions with co-workers, can be rewarding in many ways.

For people with chronic pain, all of this is true, and more.  Work can help distract you from your pain.  Research has found that people in pain who continue working enjoy greater success in their pain management.  Being at work helps many people with pain avoid isolation.  It is easy to see how vitally important it becomes to stay on the job in spite of chronic pain.

Barriers you may face

Unfortunately, chronic pain can keep you from being an effective employee. Even when people are present at their job, chronic pain can prevent them from performing their job to the best of their ability.  Some activities on the job are likely to produce more pain than others.  These are some common pain producing tasks.

  • Heavy lifting, moving, or other physically demanding activity
  • Repetitive tasks, e.g. manual packing of goods
  • Sitting at a workstation for a prolonged period
  • Standing for long periods of time without a break
  • Driving long distances or driving over rough terrain

Sometimes, it’s not just the physical pain that can get in the way of working.  Your thoughts and feelings about working in pain can make it just as challenging as your physical pain to stay on the job.  Worrying about your pain, anticipating breakthrough pain, feeling “down”, or inadequate because of your pain, can affect concentration, effectiveness, and productivity.

Tips to improve your work

Most people don’t have the freedom to take time off from work when they are in pain.  So if you have to work while you are in pain, it is essential to learn how to integrate pain management strategies into your workday.  Pain management on the job is possible, but requires an active approach.  Effective strategies include:

Mix it up.  Vary your tasks and try to avoid the same movements for prolonged periods using the same part(s) of your body.

Advocate for yourself.  Don’t work through your pain in silence. Discuss you pain with your human resources department, and ask what accommodations can be made to minimize your pain and maximize your productivity.

Talk to others.  Talk with your co-workers about your pain so they can understand and possibly assist you in your efforts to manage your pain on the job.

Time your medications. Try adjusting the timing of your medications to increase the level of pain relief at certain times of your work day, or to avoid experiencing unwanted side effects (e.g. sleepiness) at work.

Identify priorities. Know your limits and don’t push yourself in ways that will cause pain.  Say no when you must.  Learn how to schedule tasks to be most efficient when pain free.

Take breaks. Use regular breaks to help manage your pain.  Take a short walk or get up and stretch.  Some people meditate for a few minutes in a quiet place.

Take time to relax.  Even simple relaxation exercises can help decrease pain (and stress which increases pain).  Some relaxation exercises can even be done at a desk, any time.

Adjust your workspace.  Make adjustments to your work area to help minimize pain.  Explore the use of ergonomic tools which are specially designed to increase productivity and lessen injury and stress on the body.  These include special chairs, hand rests, foot rests, keyboard trays, and telephone headsets.

Adjust your schedule.  If your commute causes your pain to get worse, ask to flex your schedule to avoid the stress of a rush-hour commute

Be aware of pain management options. Consulting with a physical therapist or an occupational therapist may help improve your daily functioning. They may suggest practical ways you can develop on-the-job pain management strategies to make you a more effective worker.

The goal is to remain productive and feel less pain while staying on the job. Consider the pros and cons of talking to your employer or employee health and safety representative about how your normal work tasks can be adjusted to help you manage your pain better.