Working with pain

Close-up of people communicating while sitting in circle and gesturing
Chronic pain is a common but devastating condition that can impact on a person’s well-being and have negative psychological, social, and economic effects. Fostering a supportive workplace can benefit those experiencing chronic pain and could help improve their outcomes.

We have all experienced pain at some point, and can relate to the draining physical and emotional experience of pain. Pain doesn’t just impact the individual – family and friends can also be affected by the pain of a loved one. Similarly, when a colleague at work is suffering from pain, the impact can sometimes be felt across the workplace.

An estimated 6.1 million Australians have conditions affecting their muscles and bones, including arthritis and osteoporosis. These conditions are the most common causes of chronic pain. Over half of these people are of working age. As the Australian population gets older, the number of people living with pain is predicted to greatly increase.

Pain can be acute, which comes on suddenly in response to an event (such as injury or surgery) and often improves over a short period. Pain can also be chronic, which persists to some extent for at least 3 of the past 6 months. Sometimes acute pain does not resolve and becomes chronic. For example, when someone has an injury, their pain may persist even after the injured tissue heals.

Chronic pain can greatly impact the lives of the person affected, and the people around them. It can also have a big financial impact due to lost productivity and reduced workforce participation. The economic cost of chronic pain in Australia is estimated to be around $34.3 billion each year. Back problems and arthritis (both associated with chronic pain) account for 40% of forced retirements. The financial impact has been shown in a study from Sydney, which estimated that an average of 16.4 work day equivalents were lost over a 6-month period due to pain, which is about 3-times the average number of lost work days.

Working through the pain

A supportive workplace can help a person manage their chronic pain and improve their wellbeing. For example, employees with a manager who supports them and allows them to control or adjust their work routine are more likely to remain employed. On the other hand, a lack of workplace support is more likely to have negative impacts on an employees’ productivity. As chronic pain can be largely invisible, those experiencing it may feel misunderstood and stigmatised in their workplace. Creating systems and a workplace culture that destigmatises pain is therefore a critical step in improving outcomes for both the employee and the organisation.

What can be done in the workplace?

Employers can help identify and support the implementation of effective coping strategies for workers suffering from pain. This can include:

  • Promoting regular breaks
  • Encouraging exercise
  • Allowing flexible work hours
  • Allowing employees to work longer when well
  • Providing information on healthy eating and sleeping
  • Fostering a supportive workplace environment
  • Ergonomic assessment of the employee’s workspace and modifying if necessary
  • Changing the nature of the employee’s work to better suit an employee with chronic pain

Pain should not be a lonely experience. Collaborative workplace strategies to manage pain and the negative effects on productivity and wellbeing are essential. The benefits of creating a supportive culture will be felt not only by the individual suffering from pain, but also by workmates and the organisation’s bottom line.

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National Pain Summit Initiative 2010. National Pain Strategy. Melbourne: Faculty of Pain Medicine [Online, accessed May 2017] Available from: www.painsummit.org.au

Pain Australia. The Nature and Science of Pain [Online, accessed Mya 2017] Available from: www.painaustralia.org.au