Back at work: Managing pain on the job

Work is a big part of our lives. When chronic pain and work coincide, there are consequences. Sometimes the consequences of a chronic pain condition lead to choosing another line of work, or stopping work altogether. However, a study published by the Harris Allen Group found that 29% of employees work with ongoing problems with pain. Not surprisingly, people with the highest pain intensity reported the lowest productivity. Continuing to work can help you feel a sense of purpose and is usually the best option for long-term financial health. But it can be difficult. This article focuses on some practical things that people with chronic pain can do to maintain productivity.

Assess the physical challenges

Assessing the challenges of your job is a first step. What are the physical demands? Does your job require standing all day? Do you drive from one place to another or travel across the country often? Are you required to lift and bend? Write down all the physical requirements of your job.

Next, write down which tasks, if any, are difficult for you to perform. Perhaps your job requires intense concentration that is hard for you on days when the pain is more severe. Some things on the list you may be able to do on days when the pain is not as intense, or when you’ve had a good night’s rest, or when you haven’t overdone on the previous day. Write down all the information you can.

Assess the emotional ‘taxing’ factor

Some jobs and work places present challenge when it comes to making and maintaining important relationships. This can use up a lot of emotional resources. For example, a sales job might require you to travel, but also to be emotionally “on” for your clients. Supervising, teaching or training often requires extra energy to deal with the normal demands of these positions. These activities can be emotionally draining for some people.

Assess the ‘taxing’ factor of your job. Write down the conditions that may make this part of the job more difficult when performing it with pain. Consider factors such as fatigue, the effects of medication and disrupted sleep.

Think of solutions

Take each one of the problem areas and brainstorm alternatives. Brainstorming can be difficult; not because no solutions exist, but because you can’t think of solutions, so you might want to include other brains to help come up with ideas. For example, if you previously stood all day, you might say there’s no way you can do that now. But have you seen or tried a sit-lean stool and anti-fatigue matting?

Perhaps what you really need is some flexibility in scheduling. Maybe your work tasks need to be streamlined, allowing you to be more efficient with less movement. Is there a way you can work at home on days when the pain is high? You might ask a trusted friend or colleague to help you think through possible options.

The following are examples of solutions in different areas.

Physical challenges:

  • Search the web for aids to lifting and carrying objects
  • Be sure your workstation is suitable for your physical challenges
  • Ask about flexible hours or more frequent breaks
  • Perform stretching exercises every 30 minutes to an hour
  • Go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep
  • Reduce extra movements throughout the day

Emotional and relationship challenges:

  • Delegate responsibilities when possible
  • Identify and use leaders on a team if you are a supervisor
  • Learn to perform relaxation exercises and practice during breaks
  • Request a self-paced schedule if possible
  • Find a way to exercise to relieve workplace stress
  • Keep a positive attitude


It can be hard to decide whether to tell anyone that you have a chronic pain condition. Your employer may be able to help you with accommodations, and is required to help you in some circumstances. But the employer can’t help you if they don’t know. People at work may resent any accommodations you might receive, especially if your pain condition is not obvious. Patience in educating them might be necessary. Both your employer and co-workers will be more likely to understand your circumstances if you have thought through what you might need, and how you plan to solve the problems you experience. They will also be more receptive if they see your positive attitude and determination in dealing with a difficult situation.

Sometimes it may become necessary to find a job with different demands. Before you throw in the towel completely on your present job, think through the possible options. You may find that with some adjustments, work can be as satisfying and enjoyable as it was before.


Caudill, M.A. (2002). Managing pain before it manages you (Revised Version). New York: The Gilford Press.

Mayo Clinic. (2007). Back pain at work. Retrieved June 19, 2008 from

Turk, D.C. & Frits, W. (2005). The Pain Survival Guide: How to Reclaim Your Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.