When Pain Comes with You to Work – How to Make Them Play Nicely

Table of contents

When Pain Comes with You to Work – How to Make Them Play Nicely

Working and have chronic pain? Some days, pain might be like a little annoying fly buzzing around, but on other days it's more like lugging a sack full of bricks everywhere you go.

Chronic pain can influence nearly every part of your work. Pain may cause you to need more days off work (thank you pain flares and medical appointments!). Maybe stress, pain and sleep disturbance means a slump in your job performance or inability to concentrate. You might have physical limitations, or there could even be times when you become impatient or irritable towards coworkers and customers.

Pain can make managing sitting, standing, heavy lifting, manual work or long travel/hours difficult. On top of all of this, consider the impact of worrying about the future, grieving a lost sense of identity or purpose, financial struggles and concern about how your workplace might respond to your changing support needs.

Together, all of this can make going to work a real minefield! It’s no wonder that chronic pain causes an estimated $48.3 billion in lost productivity in Australia alone1. So, in this article we explore ways you can limit the impact of chronic pain on your work, so that you can continue to work in creative and meaningful ways.

Most people with chronic pain battle on at work in spite of their pain. This is often necessary – we need to make a living – especially in uncertain economic times. Plus, chronic pain can add additional financial pressures – think of the cost of diagnostic imaging, medications, and therapists. Together, this can create a pressure cooker situation. Unfortunately, all of these stressors themselves can also increase your pain levels (a situation called allostatic overload). So, in the long run, ignoring the problem and constantly pushing through the pain (and most likely overdoing it) are likely to create issues at work and with your pain levels. Double whammy!

We want to acknowledge that everyone's situation is different, and this means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing pain at work. But, help is available and solutions can be found. Especially if you keep an open mind, get a bit creative and keep everyone involved.

How do I work with chronic pain?

Staying at work may require modifications, flexibility, and lots of communication, but continuing to work (particularly in a job you enjoy) provides purpose and meaning. Work can also help you maintain your independence and healthy social connections. And of course, there are also the financial benefits! Here's some ideas for how to make it happen.

Let’s talk

Disclosing your chronic pain diagnosis to your employer can be a tough decision. You are not legally obligated to tell your employer about your chronic pain (or any other medical condition), but if you do choose to tell them you do have the right to privacy. So your employer is not allowed to share your personal health information without your consent.

Even with this right to privacy, disclosing an illness can be tough and you may worry that your workplace may not be supportive. However, there are benefits of talking about your pain at work (read on to find out about a few of them). If you’re still not sure, here are some some more pros and cons of talking to your employer about your health.

If you do decide to talk about it, keeping discussions open and honest is important. Schedule regular check-ins with your manager to ensure that they are up to speed with your latest diagnosis, plans and support needs. This will let them know how you are doing, so that any pain-related impacts won’t be seen as poor performance. This also allows you to open up discussions around workplace modifications. Making these modifications can be really helpful – and often mean that you can be more productive!

Sometimes your manager or HR representative may want extra information and (if you feel comfortable with this request) you can always point them towards your most helpful resources, books or websites (such as the MoreGoodDays® blog where we give tips on how to support someone living with pain).

Conversations at work can be a bit scary but don’t forget, your manager is human. Remember also that any information you share with your employer is confidential, and you are not required to share details of their condition if you do not feel comfortable doing so.

Manage your pain

This might sound like an obvious thing to suggest, but undertaking effective pain-management strategies can often help you at work. Staying on top of your pain self-management may result in less frequent and severe flare-ups, making work a lot easier. Successfully managing your pain at home can also build up your confidence, allowing you to cope better at work.

Be open with your employer about your needs as there may be options for flexibility and accommodations which allow you to incorporate some of your strategies into your working day. Otherwise, you can talk to your health team about seeing a specialized pain psychologist, and you can receive ongoing support through MoreGoodDays® and our Support Coaches who are people with lived experience of pain, who understand the challenges of working with chronic pain.

Work from home with chronic pain

One of the silver linings to come from the COVID pandemic is the increased flexibility around working from home. Many employers had to adapt quickly, because of lockdowns, and ensure that work could continue on via Zoom and other mechanisms. More workplaces are now more open to the idea of working from home. If this makes you more comfortable it can be a discussion worth exploring with your employer.

One in, all in

Try getting the whole team on board by introducing some of your pain-management practices to your workplace.

One thing that used to hold me back at work was embarrassment. I didn't want to be ‘that’ person who had to stand up and stretch in meetings, or pull out my yoga mat in the office. But if everyone is doing it, then these things just become a normal part of the workday.

Try suggesting walking meetings, or break up long periods of sitting by scheduling stretch breaks. Plus, these strategies are healthy for everyone! Active movement breaks have been shown to reduce pain and fatigue, while improving one’s mood2. So, get the whole team on track to better health!

Pacing for working with pain

We know this works (we’ve talked about pacing many times).

To start pacing at work, first think about how you can break down your role into manageable chunks and schedule rest breaks when needed. Another trick I’ve found helpful at work is to constantly have a water bottle (and drink from it). This is a two-for-one trick. First, you stay hydrated. Second, it forces you to get up more often to both fill up the water bottle and use the bathroom… ta-da! My water bottle forces me into regular breaks from sitting. And once you’re up it’s much easier to remember to move and stretch.

Working with an occupational therapist or a physio can help devise a plan of attack for building pacing concepts into your workday.

Planning

Managing your workload might require some planning and creative thinking to adapt to your current pain levels. As you become more aware of the situations and circumstances that might make your pain worse, you can start to plan your day to make the most out of your energy and pain levels.

I’m an early riser and tend to fade as the day goes on. I always try to schedule important meetings first thing in the morning, that way I can do my best to bring my A-game. I also find that I’m a bit slow on Mondays, so I try to leave myself plenty of easy work to start off my week.

However, while planning is good, don't forget that chronic pain is unpredictable. Pain and fatigue often fluctuate in severity and sometimes even the most carefully thought out plan will be useless – time to shift to your plan B (read on!).

Share the load

Have you exhausted all possibilities? Are there any ways you can enlist your co-workers to help? Maybe a job share arrangement might work if you find a good match. Again, this is where open communication can come in handy!

Ergonomic adaptations for pain management

Can you change the way you work?

Sit-stand desks are now pretty commonplace. Many larger workplaces will have someone responsible for ensuring your setup is ergonomic (usually an occupational therapist or work health and safety officer), and help you find the equipment you need to be more comfortable.

Remember, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace if you have a disability. Adaptive modification goes beyond physical equipment like desks and chairs – there have been so many new tech solutions that are worth exploring. Think about speech-to-text software if you aren’t able to type. Otherwise, it can be as simple as the trusty phone clock app! Use it to keep your pacing on track.

Where to turn to for help

Think about who you can get on your team! Within the workplace, see if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program. They can provide you with services that may help you stay on track. Otherwise, occupational therapists are fantastic at evaluating your work tasks and coming up with creative solutions.

If your desired accommodations are a bit larger in scale (think ramps, or expensive equipment), here in Australia you may be able to access funds through the Employee Assistant Funds.

If financial worries are keeping you working (and stressed and awake at night) then help is also available – try your local financial counselling service for advice and perspective around managing your finances. Free counselling is available through many local health services or check out the National Debt Helpline.

Returning to work after a long break

Returning to work after a break can be daunting, and it can be hard to know where to start. If you’re still in contact with your previous employer, you can reach out to them. They know you and your experience and might be open to discussing some of the modifications and adaptations you require (or have leads to other jobs within your field). Otherwise, your local employment services provider might be another good source of support and suggestions.

Changing to a new job

Sometimes, after exhausting all of your options at your current job, you may realize you need a more dramatic change. Leaving a job you love can be hard and requires a readjustment to your identity.

I resigned from a job I loved a few years ago and it was an incredibly difficult decision. However, it was the right decision for me. Quitting allowed me to take control and give me the time and space to manage my own health in a way that simply wasn’t possible while working full time. I was fortunate to have an amazing workplace – they supported me in so many ways before I made the decision to resign. They remained supportive after I quit – I had many colleagues praise me for prioritizing my health.

Values & meaning

While changing jobs is a challenge, it can also be an opportunity to explore your values and passions. What values do you want in your work? How can you use your skills in new ways at a new job? What flexibility do you need and what alternatives are available? What do you want to prioritize to maintain the best quality of life possible?

Changing jobs forces you to consider these questions, which can cause some angst and confusion. It can be hard to work through them by yourself. So some support, whether a trusted friend or a clinician can be helpful. The doctors and allied health professionals who we partner with understand pain and can help provide support around helpful ways to modify your work arrangements.

Skills & experience

Before changing jobs, it pays to spend some time evaluating your skills and experience. And I don't just mean whipping up your latest CV, think a bit deeper! What skills have you developed over your entire working life? Who might be interested in utilizing those skills?

If you have worked as an accountant for 20 years but can no longer sustain the 9-5 office grind, instead could you explore part-time bookkeeping for a small local business. If long days of manual labor are no longer an option, but you have previously managed your own small business successfully, you could look for business mentoring roles, or even be involved in your trade union.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are only qualified for your current job, but the skills you have developed over your career are transferable to other workplaces. Thinking broader, you can even consider how your hobbies have given you skills. Are you computer savvy? Do you have great interpersonal skills? Or are you a project management whizz?

People who get it

When you live with chronic pain, it’s pretty common to encounter people who just don’t understand what it can be like living with pain. It can be hard for them to grasp the severity of your symptoms, as well as the unpredictability of pain flares.

It's not only people that don’t get it, but also society as a whole. You just have to look at some government benefit forms to realize that people don’t understand the fluctuations of pain symptoms. For example, a question about function and ability might ask if you can lift a 5kg weight. Your answer would certainly depend on the day, right? This means that there is often limited scope to accurately answer such questions unless you base the response on your ‘worst case scenario’ – and we know focusing on that is not good for your wellbeing and stress levels!

Other opportunities to explore

Giving back

Financially, volunteering may not be the best option, but it can tick certain boxes. Volunteering may be in line with your values and tick the boxes of purpose, meaning and contribution. Volunteering can also help bridge the skills gap until you are ready to seek a return to paid work. It can also be a way to re-enter a workplace, and gain some new experience (especially if you have been out of the workforce for a while).

If all goes well, a volunteer position can also help build your network. You may get a helpful reference or even a lead on a paid position within the same organization.

Advocate

You can consider using your lived experience to become an advocate to help others living with pain. Consider roles within your local community – can you become involved in a community group, or become a peer mentor?

You could also become involved in research. Researchers are increasingly looking for people with lived experience to become involved with projects – you can help guide their projects, from helping out with funding applications, to writing up research papers. Subscribe for updates from the Consumer Health Forum of Australia for opportunities.

Take action

After reading this article, what is the one thing you might put into action? And, don't forget, we are here to help. If returning to work is a big aim of yours, support from our MoreGoodDays® program might be a great place to start. Or why not join our 'Living well with fibromyalgia' Facebook community for extra tips, motivation and support from people who “get it!”?

  1. Deloitte Access Economics (2019) The ocst of pain in Australia. Report for Pain Australia. Available at: https://www.painaustralia.org.au/static/uploads/files/the-cost-of-pain-in-australia-launch-20190404-wfrsaslpzsnh.pdf
  2. Vitoulas, S.; Konstantis, V.; Drizi, I.; Vrouva, S.; Koumantakis, G.A.; Sakellari, V. (2022) The Effect of Physiotherapy Interventions in the Workplace through Active Micro-Break Activities for Employees with Standing and SedentaryWork. Healthcare 2022, 10, 2073.

When Pain Comes with You to Work – How to Make Them Play Nicely

Table of contents

When Pain Comes with You to Work – How to Make Them Play Nicely

Working and have chronic pain? Some days, pain might be like a little annoying fly buzzing around, but on other days it's more like lugging a sack full of bricks everywhere you go.

Chronic pain can influence nearly every part of your work. Pain may cause you to need more days off work (thank you pain flares and medical appointments!). Maybe stress, pain and sleep disturbance means a slump in your job performance or inability to concentrate. You might have physical limitations, or there could even be times when you become impatient or irritable towards coworkers and customers.

Pain can make managing sitting, standing, heavy lifting, manual work or long travel/hours difficult. On top of all of this, consider the impact of worrying about the future, grieving a lost sense of identity or purpose, financial struggles and concern about how your workplace might respond to your changing support needs.

Together, all of this can make going to work a real minefield! It’s no wonder that chronic pain causes an estimated $48.3 billion in lost productivity in Australia alone1. So, in this article we explore ways you can limit the impact of chronic pain on your work, so that you can continue to work in creative and meaningful ways.

Most people with chronic pain battle on at work in spite of their pain. This is often necessary – we need to make a living – especially in uncertain economic times. Plus, chronic pain can add additional financial pressures – think of the cost of diagnostic imaging, medications, and therapists. Together, this can create a pressure cooker situation. Unfortunately, all of these stressors themselves can also increase your pain levels (a situation called allostatic overload). So, in the long run, ignoring the problem and constantly pushing through the pain (and most likely overdoing it) are likely to create issues at work and with your pain levels. Double whammy!

We want to acknowledge that everyone's situation is different, and this means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing pain at work. But, help is available and solutions can be found. Especially if you keep an open mind, get a bit creative and keep everyone involved.

How do I work with chronic pain?

Staying at work may require modifications, flexibility, and lots of communication, but continuing to work (particularly in a job you enjoy) provides purpose and meaning. Work can also help you maintain your independence and healthy social connections. And of course, there are also the financial benefits! Here's some ideas for how to make it happen.

Let’s talk

Disclosing your chronic pain diagnosis to your employer can be a tough decision. You are not legally obligated to tell your employer about your chronic pain (or any other medical condition), but if you do choose to tell them you do have the right to privacy. So your employer is not allowed to share your personal health information without your consent.

Even with this right to privacy, disclosing an illness can be tough and you may worry that your workplace may not be supportive. However, there are benefits of talking about your pain at work (read on to find out about a few of them). If you’re still not sure, here are some some more pros and cons of talking to your employer about your health.

If you do decide to talk about it, keeping discussions open and honest is important. Schedule regular check-ins with your manager to ensure that they are up to speed with your latest diagnosis, plans and support needs. This will let them know how you are doing, so that any pain-related impacts won’t be seen as poor performance. This also allows you to open up discussions around workplace modifications. Making these modifications can be really helpful – and often mean that you can be more productive!

Sometimes your manager or HR representative may want extra information and (if you feel comfortable with this request) you can always point them towards your most helpful resources, books or websites (such as the MoreGoodDays® blog where we give tips on how to support someone living with pain).

Conversations at work can be a bit scary but don’t forget, your manager is human. Remember also that any information you share with your employer is confidential, and you are not required to share details of their condition if you do not feel comfortable doing so.

Manage your pain

This might sound like an obvious thing to suggest, but undertaking effective pain-management strategies can often help you at work. Staying on top of your pain self-management may result in less frequent and severe flare-ups, making work a lot easier. Successfully managing your pain at home can also build up your confidence, allowing you to cope better at work.

Be open with your employer about your needs as there may be options for flexibility and accommodations which allow you to incorporate some of your strategies into your working day. Otherwise, you can talk to your health team about seeing a specialized pain psychologist, and you can receive ongoing support through MoreGoodDays® and our Support Coaches who are people with lived experience of pain, who understand the challenges of working with chronic pain.

Work from home with chronic pain

One of the silver linings to come from the COVID pandemic is the increased flexibility around working from home. Many employers had to adapt quickly, because of lockdowns, and ensure that work could continue on via Zoom and other mechanisms. More workplaces are now more open to the idea of working from home. If this makes you more comfortable it can be a discussion worth exploring with your employer.

One in, all in

Try getting the whole team on board by introducing some of your pain-management practices to your workplace.

One thing that used to hold me back at work was embarrassment. I didn't want to be ‘that’ person who had to stand up and stretch in meetings, or pull out my yoga mat in the office. But if everyone is doing it, then these things just become a normal part of the workday.

Try suggesting walking meetings, or break up long periods of sitting by scheduling stretch breaks. Plus, these strategies are healthy for everyone! Active movement breaks have been shown to reduce pain and fatigue, while improving one’s mood2. So, get the whole team on track to better health!

Pacing for working with pain

We know this works (we’ve talked about pacing many times).

To start pacing at work, first think about how you can break down your role into manageable chunks and schedule rest breaks when needed. Another trick I’ve found helpful at work is to constantly have a water bottle (and drink from it). This is a two-for-one trick. First, you stay hydrated. Second, it forces you to get up more often to both fill up the water bottle and use the bathroom… ta-da! My water bottle forces me into regular breaks from sitting. And once you’re up it’s much easier to remember to move and stretch.

Working with an occupational therapist or a physio can help devise a plan of attack for building pacing concepts into your workday.

Planning

Managing your workload might require some planning and creative thinking to adapt to your current pain levels. As you become more aware of the situations and circumstances that might make your pain worse, you can start to plan your day to make the most out of your energy and pain levels.

I’m an early riser and tend to fade as the day goes on. I always try to schedule important meetings first thing in the morning, that way I can do my best to bring my A-game. I also find that I’m a bit slow on Mondays, so I try to leave myself plenty of easy work to start off my week.

However, while planning is good, don't forget that chronic pain is unpredictable. Pain and fatigue often fluctuate in severity and sometimes even the most carefully thought out plan will be useless – time to shift to your plan B (read on!).

Share the load

Have you exhausted all possibilities? Are there any ways you can enlist your co-workers to help? Maybe a job share arrangement might work if you find a good match. Again, this is where open communication can come in handy!

Ergonomic adaptations for pain management

Can you change the way you work?

Sit-stand desks are now pretty commonplace. Many larger workplaces will have someone responsible for ensuring your setup is ergonomic (usually an occupational therapist or work health and safety officer), and help you find the equipment you need to be more comfortable.

Remember, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace if you have a disability. Adaptive modification goes beyond physical equipment like desks and chairs – there have been so many new tech solutions that are worth exploring. Think about speech-to-text software if you aren’t able to type. Otherwise, it can be as simple as the trusty phone clock app! Use it to keep your pacing on track.

Where to turn to for help

Think about who you can get on your team! Within the workplace, see if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program. They can provide you with services that may help you stay on track. Otherwise, occupational therapists are fantastic at evaluating your work tasks and coming up with creative solutions.

If your desired accommodations are a bit larger in scale (think ramps, or expensive equipment), here in Australia you may be able to access funds through the Employee Assistant Funds.

If financial worries are keeping you working (and stressed and awake at night) then help is also available – try your local financial counselling service for advice and perspective around managing your finances. Free counselling is available through many local health services or check out the National Debt Helpline.

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Returning to work after a long break

Returning to work after a break can be daunting, and it can be hard to know where to start. If you’re still in contact with your previous employer, you can reach out to them. They know you and your experience and might be open to discussing some of the modifications and adaptations you require (or have leads to other jobs within your field). Otherwise, your local employment services provider might be another good source of support and suggestions.

Changing to a new job

Sometimes, after exhausting all of your options at your current job, you may realize you need a more dramatic change. Leaving a job you love can be hard and requires a readjustment to your identity.

I resigned from a job I loved a few years ago and it was an incredibly difficult decision. However, it was the right decision for me. Quitting allowed me to take control and give me the time and space to manage my own health in a way that simply wasn’t possible while working full time. I was fortunate to have an amazing workplace – they supported me in so many ways before I made the decision to resign. They remained supportive after I quit – I had many colleagues praise me for prioritizing my health.

Values & meaning

While changing jobs is a challenge, it can also be an opportunity to explore your values and passions. What values do you want in your work? How can you use your skills in new ways at a new job? What flexibility do you need and what alternatives are available? What do you want to prioritize to maintain the best quality of life possible?

Changing jobs forces you to consider these questions, which can cause some angst and confusion. It can be hard to work through them by yourself. So some support, whether a trusted friend or a clinician can be helpful. The doctors and allied health professionals who we partner with understand pain and can help provide support around helpful ways to modify your work arrangements.

Skills & experience

Before changing jobs, it pays to spend some time evaluating your skills and experience. And I don't just mean whipping up your latest CV, think a bit deeper! What skills have you developed over your entire working life? Who might be interested in utilizing those skills?

If you have worked as an accountant for 20 years but can no longer sustain the 9-5 office grind, instead could you explore part-time bookkeeping for a small local business. If long days of manual labor are no longer an option, but you have previously managed your own small business successfully, you could look for business mentoring roles, or even be involved in your trade union.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are only qualified for your current job, but the skills you have developed over your career are transferable to other workplaces. Thinking broader, you can even consider how your hobbies have given you skills. Are you computer savvy? Do you have great interpersonal skills? Or are you a project management whizz?

People who get it

When you live with chronic pain, it’s pretty common to encounter people who just don’t understand what it can be like living with pain. It can be hard for them to grasp the severity of your symptoms, as well as the unpredictability of pain flares.

It's not only people that don’t get it, but also society as a whole. You just have to look at some government benefit forms to realize that people don’t understand the fluctuations of pain symptoms. For example, a question about function and ability might ask if you can lift a 5kg weight. Your answer would certainly depend on the day, right? This means that there is often limited scope to accurately answer such questions unless you base the response on your ‘worst case scenario’ – and we know focusing on that is not good for your wellbeing and stress levels!

Other opportunities to explore

Giving back

Financially, volunteering may not be the best option, but it can tick certain boxes. Volunteering may be in line with your values and tick the boxes of purpose, meaning and contribution. Volunteering can also help bridge the skills gap until you are ready to seek a return to paid work. It can also be a way to re-enter a workplace, and gain some new experience (especially if you have been out of the workforce for a while).

If all goes well, a volunteer position can also help build your network. You may get a helpful reference or even a lead on a paid position within the same organization.

Advocate

You can consider using your lived experience to become an advocate to help others living with pain. Consider roles within your local community – can you become involved in a community group, or become a peer mentor?

You could also become involved in research. Researchers are increasingly looking for people with lived experience to become involved with projects – you can help guide their projects, from helping out with funding applications, to writing up research papers. Subscribe for updates from the Consumer Health Forum of Australia for opportunities.

Take action

After reading this article, what is the one thing you might put into action? And, don't forget, we are here to help. If returning to work is a big aim of yours, support from our MoreGoodDays® program might be a great place to start. Or why not join our 'Living well with fibromyalgia' Facebook community for extra tips, motivation and support from people who “get it!”?