The Impact of Chronic Pain in the Workplace

Woman holding her wrist.Chronic pain is affecting more and more Americans. A 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health revealed that chronic or severe pain affects nearly 50 million American adults on a consistent basis. What impact does chronic pain have on the workforce, and how can your HR team better support these individuals? 

An Invisible Disability

Chronic pain is typically defined as pain which lasts for three to six months or longer. It is very often an invisible disability, which makes it very difficult for people to live with. They may need to take more sick days, or go through periods of time where their productivity takes a hit — and their fellow colleagues may not understand why. This absenteeism also has a financial cost. A 2013 survey by Gallup revealed that approximately $24.2 billion is lost annually in the professional sector as a result of absenteeism from poor health.

When someone needs to miss work due to illness or injury, impacts are felt throughout the organization. Other people may step in to take on the work, or a new hire may be trained up if their time off work is more substantial. At first your financial statements may not seem impacted, yet the Integrated Benefits Institute estimates that opportunity costs of disability can amount to an additional 38 percent of absent workers’ wages for the U.S. workforce. 

Helping Those with Chronic Pain

For HR directors or managers, it can feel like there is no clear approach to dealing with chronic pain in an effective manner. However, there are various ways to manage chronic pain in the workplace, and the importance of incorporating compassion into the process cannot be overstated.

Here are several ways you can support your workers:

Break Down the Stigma: One of the major barriers that people with chronic pain endure is the fact that it’s so often an invisible disability. People may not look like they have anything wrong with them, yet they are battling a very real illness. Be proactive in building a wellness culture in your organizaton. Take steps to eliminate barriers that might cause people to not seek help or explain what they’re dealing with, whether through educational meetings, personal sit-downs, or proactively checking in with someone whose productivity is dipping, to see whether there is a bigger issue at play.

Enhance Awareness of Treatment Options: Many people who suffer from chronic pain do so without knowing where to turn. By providing employees with information about effective treatment options, they can find the best plan for dealing with the pain. You can adapt the office environment such as incorporating ergonomic stations where people can work — and make sure that employees are taking their breaks. 

Offer Benefits Like Disability Insurance: The chances of someone having an illness or injury that puts them out of work for several months is higher than most people realize. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, one in four of today’s 20-year olds will experience a disability before retirement age. Disability insurance is an affordable benefit that helps to protect an employee’s income if they do need to take time off the job — reducing the financial pressure while they recover. 

Chronic pain isn’t something that’s going to disappear from the professional landscape, but its impacts can be lessened with the right approach. By building a workplace culture that is open and inclusive, you’ll be able to support employees and boost morale across the organization.