Working With Chronic Pain

Back pain affects about 80 percent of adults at some time in their lives, and about 50 percent of people experience neck pain. Back pain and neck pain are among the most common reasons for doctor visits, and are major causes of disability, lost work days, and high health care costs. Every day, people go to work in pain and try to manage as best they can.

I talked with chronic illness career coach Rosalind Joffe to learn more about how people can manage chronic pain at work. According to Joffe, "chronic pain is often unpredictable, and managing the condition requires patience, planning, and endurance. Living with chronic illness is a lot like running a marathon -- you need to live in a place of hope that you'll make it to the finish line." Here are some of the strategies Joffe recommends for managing chronic pain at work.

Assess your ability to work with chronic pain.

Make a list of your job tasks. Which tasks do you need to restrict some of the time because of continuous symptoms? Which tasks do you need to restrict some of the time because of periodic symptoms? Which tasks are inherently harmful to your health, meaning that they make your condition worse, rather than just making you feel different at the moment you are doing the task?

Determine whether you can make changes to your work environment.

Research your options and decide what accommodations are necessary for you to get the job done and what accommodations will help you do your job better but are not absolutely necessary. A different office chair, a footrest, a different keyboard, or the opportunity to take frequent breaks from your desk or repetitive motions may help improve your ability to function at work. In other situations, a more flexible schedule or a change in job tasks or functions, when feasible, can help as well.

Discuss your situation with your employer.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people with chronic pain do not disclose their situation at work. Which means that supervisors and co-workers are unprepared about what to do when it comes up. This doesn't mean complaining to anyone who will listen that you're sluggish or have some pain. But there's the point when you're having trouble doing the work and your performance is suffering. It's not easy to let people know about your pain or why you can't meet that deadline or make that meeting. But unless you do, they will have no idea what your problem is or what might help and you have no chance for improving your situation.

If you are interviewing for a new position, you are not legally obligated to disclose your diagnosis. But if you wait until you are in the job, you run the risk of damaging the relationship with your new boss because you failed to disclose how your condition might impact your work.

Joffe notes, "living with illness presents challenges, frustrations, loss and opportunities. The same as healthy people face. But because people who live with chronic illness or pain have lost so much, they have to work harder to make the most of what is available to them."

Chronic illness or pain can foster a bad attitude. But these days who can afford to have a bad attitude at work? For more tips on managing chronic illness and pain, check out Joffe's blog, Working With Chronic Illness.

Next: Is Your Office Chair Killing You?

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paula r jones

I have suffered severe chronic back pain for 15 years and am on SS disability. Due to the fact that I am a single mother I really need to try to go back to work but what way do you suggest approaching the subject of revealing my illness with an employer during the interview? I do have a college education also, but a large lump of time with no work and this concerns me as well and I also want to know how to go about wording this on my resume.

June 20 2010 at 7:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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