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Chronic Pain in the Workplace

I shoveled quite a bit of snow this past week and my back is sore, my arms hurt and I feel like a real whiner, running to the medicine cabinet for another dose of aspirin. Just sitting at my desk hurts and I can't concentrate. Through this experience, I thought; how many people struggle at work each day with pain much worse and more chronic than mine? How do people balance taking pain medication with staying focused and productive? How do they keep going each day?

According to the National Pain Foundation, persistent pain is a quite prevalent in this country. More than 50 million people living in the United States suffer from chronic pain. Two thirds of pain sufferers have been living with their pain for more than five years and experience pain almost six days a week.

An organization called Pain at Work describes The Impact of Chronic Pain on the Individual this way:

  • Inadequately managed pain can produce anxiety, fear, depression, or cognitive dysfunction.
  • Chronic pain can increase disabilities of other disorders including depression and anxiety, and is a risk factor for suicide in depressed patients.
  • Chronic pain interferes with sleep and adversely affects the quality of life for people dealing with pain—both in terms of their day-to-day activities and their emotional well-being.

Results released this week from a 2006 national survey conducted by Harris Interactive(R) on "Pain in the Workplace" found that relentless, chronic pain has risen dramatically among full-time U.S. workers in the past 10 years.

  • In 2006, nearly 9 in 10 employees living with chronic pain (89%) reported that they typically go to work rather than stay at home, when experiencing pain.
  • Nearly half of employees living with chronic pain (46%) said their pain affected their ability to perform their job.

This sets up huge potential for presenteeism, employee mistakes and safety issues and concerns and possibly abuse of prescription drugs on the job. But most employers don't know about the employee's pain until it is quite severe. Employees fear discrimination or loss of a job if it's perceived that they are compromised by pain and many cut back on medication to be able to appear "normal". Unfortunately this leads to mismanagement of the pain and could exacerbate the problem and the associated emotional problems of anxiety and depression.

Company sponsored wellness programs and efforts by organizations to provide employees with healthy living resources are a good way to address this hidden problem but in 2006, only 22% of wellness programs included a component about preventing or living with chronic pain conditions.

In the next few weeks, I'll explore this topic in more depth, share some tips for the HR Manager and the supervisor as well as for the individual employee.

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