Your business likely has a chronic pain problem, and you’re probably not aware. Musculoskeletal conditions have the biggest impact on employers’ overall healthcare spending in the U.S. and Canada. And those are just the direct costs; the indirect costs are even greater.
A 2021 study found that employees suffering from chronic pain missed 10.3 workdays, versus 2.8 workdays for individuals without chronic pain. From a business perspective, these numbers are staggering, yet these estimates don’t even account for presenteeism, which is the lost productivity associated with employees being at work but not at their best due to injury or illness. That same study estimates the total cost of lost workplace productivity from chronic pain at nearly $300 billion per year.
For companies around the world, whether large or small, gaining a better understanding of chronic pain is a crucial first step toward solving this problem.
The Pain Point
During my time running a healthcare company that takes a holistic approach to chronic pain treatment — one that considers biological, psychological and social factors — I’ve come to understand that chronic pain often isn’t simply a response to an injury that hasn’t healed. Rather, it’s more likely in response to another perceived threat.
There are many reasons for our brains and bodies to feel threatened, one of which is chronic stress. When an individual experiences chronic stress, their brain might determine that increased sensitivity is necessary for survival, causing the body to produce more sensors. The combination of the increased number of sensors and the continued release of a chemical stimulus, like adrenaline, could be enough to prompt a pain response from the brain.
While it might be easier for employers to attribute their employees’ pain to an injury, or the threat of an injury, there’s power in knowing that pain doesn’t necessarily follow damage. For company leaders, understanding that persistent pain isn’t necessarily due to any actual or potential tissue damage is a powerful first step in learning how to support their employees in regaining control over their pain and helping them enable their return to function and move toward an improved quality of life.
Supporting Employees In The Workplace
In the U.S., 90% of the country’s $3.8 trillion in annual health care expenditures account for people living with chronic and mental conditions, and workplace stress is just one example of how non-injury-related incidents can contribute to the severity of chronic pain. Let me re-emphasize that employee absenteeism due to chronic pain is costly. Add to the fact that employees with chronic pain also tend to struggle with productivity at work due to their symptoms, meaning things like constant discomfort, fatigue, brain fog and motor issues can further hinder their performance.
So what can leaders do to improve the experience for their employees with chronic pain? Here are three key tips:
Show empathy by making an effort to understand what chronic pain is. Create a work environment that’s conducive to having open conversations about things like chronic pain. Talk to your employees, and find out what specific support they need from you as a leader. Your attentiveness, willingness to understand and efforts in helping them maintain a healthy lifestyle will speak volumes to your employees and be highly appreciated at an internal level.
Accommodate employees’ needs when it comes to managing their chronic pain. Give your employees the time and space to de-stress. Better yet, provide opportunities for flexible working environments. Some employees perform and feel better when they’re able to physically move, so this might mean upgrading your office space to include standing desks or providing open but work-friendly spaces where employees don’t necessarily need to be tied to their desks. A hybrid work environment, where employees are in the office part-time and working from home the rest of the time is another approach many of us have, or will soon, become familiar with as we emerge from the pandemic and could help employees who experience chronic stress and pain.
Re-evaluate your employee benefits. To maintain productivity and office morale, providing a robust and inclusive employee benefits program is essential. When considering benefits that can support employees living with chronic pain, keep in mind that early intervention is key. Leaving instances of chronic pain untreated or unresolved can not only lead to worsened conditions but even the development of other long-term health conditions. Introducing benefits that acknowledge the challenges of chronic pain like access to credible chronic pain physicians and even mental health services can demonstrate to employees that their well-being is being prioritized and accounted for. This can have positive impacts on employee satisfaction and, ultimately, your business.
Leaders need to actually listen to their employees and take note of how debilitating chronic pain can be. This can have positive impacts on your team’s health and the good of your business.