Chronic Pain in the Workplace

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Unless you have lived with chronic pain, you cannot begin to fathom the physical and psychological torture many people in pain go through.  Chronic pain is an issue so often ignored in the workplace.

About a year ago, I wrote an article about “presenteeism,” which basically is the act of attending work while you are sick.  But presenteeism isn’t just showing up for work when you have a cold or the sniffles, it is showing up to work every day despite pain, fatigue and other symptoms that come with chronic pain and illness.

Presenteeism was recently researched by the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC), which found that while employees with chronic health conditions took an average of just four sick days a year, they confessed to being unproductive at work an average of 57.5 days a year.

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The GCC report estimated that the cost of presenteeism was 10 times higher than absenteeism. Absent workers cost employers in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia about $150 billion a year, but those who came to work and were not fully productive cost them $1,500 billion.

The study’s authors noted the importance of companies to improve productivity by putting their focus on reducing presenteeism.

I am not sure employers know or even care how many of their people are dealing with chronic pain challenges.  And if they do, what expectations do they have of these employees? Do they even understand the difficulties of being productive when you are physically hurting?

Chronic Pain and Lost Productivity

According to another report from the Institute of Medicine Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care and Education, chronic pain is costing the U.S. economy between $560 to $635 billion annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity. While many employees who live with pain continue to work, they struggle to be productive. 

One possible solution – opioid pain medication – is no longer easily accessible, even for pain patients who don’t misuse prescription drugs and who want to have normal, productive lives.

Research has shown that about two million Americans misuse opioids, and a good chunk of them wind up in emergency rooms. But that statistic ignores the millions of people that need pain medications and don’t abuse them.

Too many prescribing guidelines -- and fear of DEA oversight -- keep our doctors from writing prescriptions for pain medication, even for medicines that are relatively safe and have low risk of addiction.  Guidelines and insurance reimbursement policies have basically taken discretion away from responsible doctors in managing patient pain care.

Some chronic pain sufferers won’t even ask their doctors about pain medication because of the stigma attached to opioid misuse and abuse. Up until recently, I was one of them. I wouldn’t ask my doctor for medication to manage my pain because of that very stigma.  But my pain levels got so bad I had no other choice.  And my doctor, like so many others, was wary of writing a prescription and didn’t give in until I was practically begging. She explained she trusted my judgment, but was limited in her options due to government guidelines.

Working with Pain

The biggest concern I have on an almost a daily basis is how long I will be able to continue working. Will my boss get tired of the mistakes I make on the days I am hurting and my focus is off due to pain and lack of sleep? While my employers know I live with pain from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, they really don’t care – most likely because my disability is invisible, but also because it isn’t their problem – it is mine.  

I am not sure most employers or coworkers understand the overwhelming and difficult responsibility of holding down a full-time job when you live with chronic pain.  Even if your employer provides accommodations – like workspace adjustments and options to work from home on occasion – the basic requirements of the job can still be great when you are hurting.

In an ideal world, employers would offer options for pain management on the job -- in the form of wellness programs and workplace accommodations – so we could work at full capacity.  Employees who feel supported will seek out all available help, feel better, and function better on the job. 

But most employers have yet to recognize the crucial role they play in helping to manage the pain epidemic in this country.  They see chronic pain as a personal problem, rather than a business dilemma.   Until that changes, we are on our own to suffer in silence and figure out how to work better, despite the pain that we endure. 

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Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother who lives with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. 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.