By Dr Glenn Mason, Senior Clinical Lead and Counselling Psychologist, Onebright
Most people experience physical pain at some point in their lives, but for some, it can be debilitating and make day-to-day life difficult.
Chronic or persistent pain lasts longer than three months and is now classified as either chronic primary pain or chronic secondary pain. New research has shown that chronic pain can be linked to trauma as trauma can lead to alterations in pain perception and regulation. As an employer, it can be helpful to bear these connections in mind so you can best support an employee.
Chronic pain affects some 28 million people in the UK and the impact on business and the economy is significant as it can lead to absenteeism and, in some cases, a complete withdrawal from work altogether. This corresponds with government data which shows that there was a 31 per cent increase in back and neck issues and a 22 per cent increase in mental health conditions keeping people off work between Q2 2019 and Q2 2022.
Individuals can suffer from disturbed sleep, fatigue, low mood, anxiety, stress, depression, lack of focus, as well as having no work life balance and side effects from medications to manage the pain. In fact, research shows, although varied in their findings, that up to 85 per cent of people with chronic pain experience depression.
Individuals with chronic pain often worry about what people at work think about their condition, especially if they need to take a lot of time off or they are struggling to manage tasks, and this can lead to fear of losing their job. For some, the impact on their mental health can be so big that stop work.
There are many ways you can support employees, but here are five initiatives you can implement to help employees manage their pain at work.
Having a range of communication channels available for employees creates an open culture and one where employees feel empowered to speak out about their issues. Create a culture that reduces stigma and anything an employee says should be met with compassion and kindness – whether that be to a line manager or a mental health / physical first aider. Be honest and ensure the individual feels supported and listened to.
It is important to keep people in work as this not only helps an individual’s mental health but their physical health too. Speak with the person about what they feel comfortable doing at work and look to adapt their role to suit their needs – put plans in place to help the individual continue to develop their career and feel valued. Being flexible about taking time off for medical appointments and having more regular breaks will also be appreciated.
Implementing training to help leaders and line managers understand what chronic pain is and how it can impact an individual can help reduce stigma in the workplace, as well as help employees feel more understood. It can also help you to put the right support in place. If a senior leader or manager has chronic pain themselves, it can be good to showcase their story and how they work.
If an employee with chronic pain is working in an office or at home their workstation should be set up to ensure their body is well supported – whether that be their desk, chair, or lighting, for example. Every condition has different needs, so be sure to check what will work best for the employee.
Whilst it is great to have a supportive working environment, you cannot do it all yourself, so do way mark employees to other support outside of your organisation, such as occupational health, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and NHS resources.