Chronic pain has been a frequently discussed matter recently, which in turns begs an important question. It is important to remember that according to the NIH, chronic pain affects over 100 million Americans or 1 in 10 Americans. Not to mention chronic pain affects 1.5 billion people worldwide. Chronic pain is the most common cause of long-term disability. With these facts in mind, perhaps the most significant question, and most commonly asked to chronic pain patients, is that of their ability to work.
The Real Answer
The reality is that there is no clear answer to this question. Some chronic pain patients can indeed work successfully, while others simply cannot. Each case is different. We cannot expect two cancer patients to be the same, so why do we treat other illnesses and pain patients like they are?
Imagine chronic pain patients like volcanos. Some are active volcanoes; their pain intense, widespread, and too unpredictable to control. Others, on the other hand, are dormant, where they can manage and push through their low pain levels enough to work. And then the rest fall somewhere in between. Where most of the time the pain is dormant, controllable. The problem arises however when the pain switches over to active. It bubbles to the surface, erupting violently. For some, this happens it can happen if they merely work too hard or if their body just becomes too tired.
For others, it is if they catch a virus, or do not get enough hours of sleep. Trying to find a balance in this world for them is what can be so challenging for chronic pain patients. With chronic pain levels and abilities so fluctuating, it becomes difficult to hold down a full-time job, let alone find one that even accommodates their needs.
Difficulty Finding Work for Chronic Pain Patients
Those who cannot find a job that will accommodate their needs find it the most difficult to find work. It is especially frustrating because these individuals aren’t incapable of working, but they also aren’t fully capable of working either. They don’t fit in anywhere in societies’ usual standards. This can be so disheartening and frustrating for those with chronic pain.
Yet, chronic pain is not something that should hold us back or prevent us from following our dreams. While it may be a longer and harder journey for those who suffer from chronic pain, it is often those who prevail through pain that are the most robust, hardest and most mature workers; no matter age, education level, or previous experience. So perhaps instead of employers seeing chronic illnesses and chronic pain as a liability, we should see it as a possible advantage or benefit to our companies and teams.
According to The Good Body, 36 million Americans missed work due to pain in a single year. Additionally, they reported that America loses in between $299 and $325 billion dollars in lost productivity due to pain, based on factors including days of work missed, hours of work lost, and lower wages. While this is a large loss to America’s economy, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.
If we want to see more people with chronic pain succeed and working, we should also be prepared to work with them in helping them accomplish such that. It is critical to understand that there will be both good and bad days for those with chronic pain. In doing so, employers should have a plan set up with those employees to establish what to do on those sick days. A prime example of this would be to have them work from home remotely that day. Working from home allows employees with chronic illness to recover some and relieve some of the pressure and pain on their body; all while still being productive.
Regardless, this all starts with a healthy employer and employee relationship based on being open and honest. No matter how hard someone with chronic pain works, sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter or goes unnoticed if their co-workers judge if they might occasionally need to take a break. On the flip side, it can also be hard to find a job if employers see someone with chronic pain as a liability or lesser candidate. So the question becomes less about those with chronic pain being able to work, but rather how difficult it can be for them to find work, and then to hold down that job.
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I am a 22 year old young professional who suddenly became seriously ill during my senior year of college. I have been struggling with my chronic illness, debilitating migraines, POTS, and searching for a diagnosis; all while attempting to move forward for almost three years now. It’s been a long hard journey, but I have learned much and gained significant insight into suffering with chronic illness and pain, dealing with both supportive/un-supportive family and friends, and even the pros and cons of having an emotional support dog. It’s not easy; but that just means you have to look a little harder for the humor and silver linings (one of favorite movies btw!)