The occasional headache, back pain, or muscle strains can make our days difficult, but chronic pain is a different story. Enduring relentless discomfort, day after day, while trying to keep up with the demands of a regular workday, is an unfortunate reality for many Canadians living with chronic pain. Not only does it impact individuals on a personal level, it seeps into the workplace, impacting productivity, morale, and overall well-being.
National Pain Awareness Week, observed from November 5 to 11, is a time to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those living with chronic pain, break down barriers, and create change.
Persistent Pain in Perspective
The World Health Organization recognizes chronic pain as a disease and not just as a symptom of another condition. Pain is considered chronic when it lasts longer than three months, and can sometimes occur without a known cause, after an injury has healed, or after a condition has been treated.
According to a 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, more than half of Canadian benefits plan members live with at least one diagnosed chronic health condition, and 10 per cent of them live with chronic pain. Out of all chronic conditions, the survey found chronic pain had the most impact on an individual’s overall and mental health. The survey also found that a higher percentage of those living with chronic pain had poor overall health (39%) and poor mental health (36%). Two-thirds (65%) of plan members surveyed agreed that their work environments contributed to their general aches and pains, and that number was higher (75%) for those with physically demanding jobs.
The shift to remote or hybrid working models may be playing a role in the increase in chronic pain among employees. Many individuals working remotely may not have proper ergonomic chairs or desks at home. Constantly working on a couch or at a kitchen table can strain the back, neck, and shoulders, leading to chronic pain issues over time. At the same time, one survey found that just over a third (34%) of plan members said working remotely actually helped them miss less work due to their chronic pain, suggesting that working from home was especially helpful for those with arthritis (93%).
Whether working remotely or in an office, extended periods of sitting can cause muscle stiffness, reduced circulation, and back pain, and the incorrect placement of computer screens can cause eye strain. Understanding these challenges is important for both employers and employees. Employers can provide guidance on proper ergonomic setups, and employees can be proactive about creating workspaces that promote comfort.
Chronic pain can also stem from various conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, and more. Mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, can worsen chronic pain, and vice versa. Chronic pain is often invisible, meaning employees may be struggling, even if they don’t show visible signs. Acknowledging that conditions vary greatly and require different accommodations and support, as well as recognizing the diverse nature of chronic pain, can help improve the well-being and productivity of employees managing these conditions.
Unseen Struggles: Chronic Pain in the Workplace
Chronic pain can present several challenges in the workplace that can make it difficult for employees to feel fulfilled and do their best work. Pain can be distracting and make it difficult to concentrate on tasks. It can also significantly restrict movement, making it challenging to carry out any job duties that involve mobility or strength. Pain can lead to disrupted sleep and fatigue, resulting in lower energy levels throughout the day. Employees living with chronic pain may need to take days off to manage their condition or attend medical appointments. Chronic pain can also lead to anxiety and depression, impacting an employee’s ability to manage workplace stress.
Research published in the Canadian Journal of Pain found that individuals with pain were 64% less likely to view their jobs as rewarding, 47% more likely to be subjected to threats or abuse in the workplace, and 30% more likely to report poor supervisor support. Overall, chronic pain is associated with lower fulfillment and feelings of being ostracized at work, suggesting that the presence of pain goes well beyond lost productivity due to absenteeism.
Creating a Supportive Workplace Environment
It’s important for employers to recognize these challenges and work with their teams to find accommodations and build support systems. By considering the following solutions, employers can create an environment where chronic pain awareness is an integral part of the workplace culture.
Increasing awareness about chronic pain in the workplace is about building a culture of support and inclusivity, and creating workplace environments where employees can thrive. Contact us for more information and advice on how you can provide essential support and address the unique needs of employees with chronic pain.