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Have you ever considered how chronic pain in the workplace impacts not only your employees but also your company’s overall productivity and bottom line?

According to the National Library of Medicine, Chronic pain affects an estimated 1 in 5 adults. The impact of chronic pain extends beyond personal well-being, posing a considerable cost to employers in terms of lost productivity. While chronic pain can manifest in various forms, it is crucial for businesses to recognise its far-reaching consequences. In this article, we will delve into the hidden costs of chronic pain, explore the limitations of the current healthcare system, and discuss practical steps business professionals can take to address chronic pain in the workplace.

Together, we can create a healthier and more productive work environment, writes specialist pain coach Gemma McFall.

Understanding Chronic Pain and Its Implications

Chronic pain, as defined in this context, refers to pain that carries on for longer than 12 weeks despite medication or treatment. This includes individuals suffering from lower back pain attributed to past injuries, managers incapacitated by recurring migraines, or employees grappling with anxiety and insomnia before important presentations. Additionally, there are many other personal medical conditions that often go unspoken due to societal shame. While the direct costs of chronic pain to employers are evident in increased medical premiums, absenteeism, and employee turnover, there are hidden costs that must be acknowledged.

One such cost is presenteeism, where employees physically occupy their desks but are mentally absent due to chronic pain.  Harvard Business Review has roughly estimated that presenteeism costs the U.S. economy upwards of $150 billion a year in lost productivity, which far surpasses annual absenteeism costs. Furthermore, chronic pain takes a toll on employees’ mental well-being.  The National Library of Medicine cites clinical studies showing up to 85% of patients with chronic pain are affected by severe depression. Additionally, persistent symptoms can trigger a fight-or-flight response, leading to heightened conflict and communication issues within the workplace.

The Limitations of the Current System

As employers, we may feel helpless when faced with chronic pain in the workplace. The conventional Western medical model, effective for acute conditions and infections, offers limited solutions for chronic pain. Current medical approaches often involve tests to explore potential causes or prescriptions for medication and surgery to alleviate symptoms. However, research in pain science has shown that chronic pain is often not solely a structural issue, rendering traditional treatments inadequate. MRI scans and localised treatments fail to address the root cause of chronic pain.

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Taking a holistic perspective on chronic pain reveals the intricate connection between our brains and bodies. All pain is ultimately generated by the brain, which receives various inputs and interprets them as signals of pain to protect us. However, in the case of chronic pain, the brain may misinterpret information, perceiving threats as more severe than they actually are. This cognitive error, known as prediction error, triggers a pain response. It is effectively a false alarm. Moreover, physical and emotional pathways in the brain overlap, allowing an individual to perceive a threat emotionally and experience corresponding physical symptoms, often without conscious awareness of the underlying issue.

Practical Steps for Employers

To address chronic pain in the workplace, employers can take several practical steps that promote employee well-being and productivity.

  • Educate employees: Share information about advances in pain research, including its neuroplastic nature. The three most common names for this are Neuroplastic Pain, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), or Mind-Body Condition. Educating employees on the origins of their symptoms empowers them to break the pain-fear cycle.
  • Emotional support: Encourage open dialogue and explore any emotional threats your employees may be facing. By fostering a safe and supportive environment, employees will feel more comfortable discussing their challenges and seeking appropriate help.
  • Personality traits and pressure: Recognise that certain personality traits, such as high achievers, empathy, overthinking, perfectionism, and a need for control, may contribute to chronic pain. Understanding these traits can help identify unnecessary pressure employees may place on themselves and provide targeted support.

Education and empathy

Chronic pain presents significant challenges in the workplace, affecting individuals and businesses alike. By understanding its hidden costs and acknowledging the limitations of the current healthcare system, business professionals can take proactive steps to address this issue.

Education is key to empowering employees, breaking the pain-fear cycle, and fostering a healthier work environment. As we look to the future, a holistic approach and deeper understanding of the mind-body connection offer promising solutions. By embracing these changes and fostering a culture of continuous learning, businesses can create a future where chronic pain is effectively addressed, improving employee well-being and productivity.

To make a positive impact on chronic pain in your workplace, start by educating yourself and your team. Foster open dialogues with employees, providing a safe space to discuss emotional threats and offering support. Recognise personality traits that may contribute to chronic pain and provide targeted assistance. Consider inviting an expert to speak directly to your team, further enhancing awareness and understanding. Prioritise education, empathy, and a holistic approach to well-being, and you’ll have the power to drive meaningful change and positively transform the lives of your employees.

You can contact Gemma at