Should You Tell an Employer About Your Chronic Pain?

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Telling your boss or a potential employer about your chronic pain condition can be slippery slope. 

If you disclose it, you may wind up dealing with judgments and misguided attitudes from supervisors and coworkers about the extent of your chronic pain. On the other hand, if you don’t disclose it, you may miss out on accommodations you need and are entitled to.

There is always going to be risk when you disclose. And it is hard to know whether an employer will be accommodating or treat you unfairly.   

You do have rights as an employee and a person living with chronic pain. You should know what they are before you decide whether to disclose.

You Do Not Have to Be Visibly Disabled

Many people who live with chronic pain don’t consider themselves “disabled.”  Even so, they may still qualify for accommodations under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA defines a person with disability as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment” that significantly alters one or more major life activities. You may have trouble sitting, standing or walking, for example. The key is whether the limitation is substantial

It is important to note the ADA’s definition is a legal one, not medical. And because it is a legal definition, the meaning of disability is different than it would be under other laws. The ADA doesn’t list all the covered conditions, which gives some flexibility to people living with  non-specific chronic pain; which is pain that lasts longer than three months, but has no specific medical cause.

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For example, you could have joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis, while someone else’s back pain may not be related to a specific event or health condition. It doesn’t make the other person’s pain any less valid than yours or diminish their need for job accommodations. Back pain would still be considered an impairment.

You Do Not Have to Disclose When Job Hunting

The ADA does not require you to disclose your medical conditions when interviewing and applying for jobs.  However, the employer is allowed to ask questions about whether there is anything that could prevent you from doing the job required. 

They may inquire about medical conditions and request a medical exam, but only if they are doing this with all their new hires and being in good physical health is a requirement to perform the job.

You Do Not Have Disclose When You Start a New Job

If you didn’t disclose your condition while interviewing or when you started the job, you can still ask for accommodations later.  You have the right to ask when the need arises.

If you request an accommodation, an employer is allowed to ask for a reasonable corroboration of your need for one,  such as a doctor’s letter. You can disclose what you want about your medical condition and it doesn’t have to be everything.

You Can Disclose on Your Own Timetable

You are under no legal obligation to tell anybody at your job about your chronic pain.  Your employer also does not have any legal right to request this information from you; unless it involves health and safety obligations they are required to meet.  

It is your decision when and if you want to tell your employer, ask for accommodations and/or share with your co-workers.  You never have to let anyone know if you don’t want to.

Should You Disclose?

If you believe chronic pain affects your ability to do your job, think about the ways it does and what solutions there might be.  For example, are you leaving work often for medical appointments? Would a flexible schedule or working from home one day a week help your situation?

Or could you benefit from other tools that make it easier to work, such as an ergonomic workstation?  Keyboards, mice, office chairs, standing desks and other ergonomically designed tools are increasingly being used in the workplace because they reduce the risk of back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders. 

A good resource where you can find examples of accommodations for specific medical conditions is the Job Accommodation Network.

Things May Not Go as You Plan

If you choose to disclose, you may not get the response you want. Your employer is prohibited by law from terminating you based on your need for accommodation.  However, they might find other ways to get rid of you or retaliate, such as changing your work schedule or denying you a promotion.

They’re taking a big risk if they do. Any form of retaliation when someone asserts their rights is illegal under the ADA. The question will be -- can you prove it? Always keep good records and notes about your communications with an employer about your medical conditions.

Your employer can deny your request for a specific accommodation, provided they are willing to accommodate you in other ways.  For example, if your office space is cold and your joints hurt more in that environment, they could deny your request for a space heater due to fire concerns, but offer to move you to a warmer section of the office as an alternative.

The good news is that your employer cannot flat out deny your request for accommodation. They are required to make a good faith effort to accommodate you in ways that make it easier to do your job with chronic pain.

Good Employers Want to Keep Good Employees

There are no easy answers as to whether you should or shouldn’t disclose your chronic pain to your employer. You should do what works best for you and your workplace. A good employer will be motivated to keep you and will do everything to accommodate you. Others may not.

Make sure you are continually updating your resume and your skill-set should you need to look for a new job.

I have been fortunate to work for companies that have accommodated my needs as a person with chronic pain.  They have understood my need for a flexible work schedule, an ergonomic workstation, and to be able to leave work early or show up late after medical appointments. They’ve made it easier for me to be successful at my job.

I know the idea of disclosure can make you nervous, but it may help you get the support necessary to be a better employee.  From my experience, most employers are accommodating and want to keep valuable employees. They know that the best employees are found in comfortable workplaces.

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Lana Barhum is a medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.