According to the United States Department of Labor, Labor Day is a “yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Since it’s estimated that around 100 million United States citizens suffer from chronic pain, it’s safe to assume that a lot of our country’s workers deal with pain and discomfort on a regular basis. Thankfully, there are several simple workplace changes that can help you manage your chronic pain. Here’s how to manage chronic pain at work.
1. Talk to your boss
Pain levels can fluctuate from day to day, sometimes even from minute to minute. If your pain flares up and you need to leave early, your boss will probably be a lot more understanding if you’ve discussed your chronic pain condition with him or her in advance.
Speaking with your boss is also a good opportunity to bring up workplace accommodations. For instance, many companies now offer employees the option to tele-commute from home on days when they’re unable to come to work.
2. Look into workplace wellness programs
On-site gyms, massage therapists, and ergonomic specialists are becoming more and more common. Each wellness program is different. Some companies might provide employees with gym memberships, while others may have vending machines stocked with healthy snacks. If your workplace doesn’t have a wellness program, consider bringing it up in the next meeting, along with a few realistic suggestions. For example, don’t suggest that your small, three-employee company should build an on-site gym; instead suggest something like a company team in a local charity walk.
3. Be mindful of your body position
For office workers, this means making sure you have an ergonomic desk setup. Your monitor should be at eye-level. Both your knees and elbows should be at a comfortable 90 degree angle. Your feet should rest flat on the floor. If in doubt, bring this up to your boss; many companies have someone available to help you make sure your desk is set up as ergonomically as possible.
For people who work in a more physical job, this means being careful of how you move your body – particularly during repetitive actions or while lifting heavy objects. Avoid awkward or twisting movements. When lifting objects, try to use the legs and stomach muscles, instead of depending on your back to do all the work. Make sure your back is straight when you lift things. Always talk to your doctor too, if you suffer from chronic pain at work as they can make suggestions for improving your work space.
4. Adjust your schedule
You know your body better than anyone else. Is your pain worse in the morning? Does rushing around make you hurt worse? Pay attention to when your pain is worst. If possible, alter your work schedule accordingly. For example, if hurrying makes you hurt, get up a little earlier in the morning, or start your workday a little later. If mornings are your worst time of day, ask if you can switch to a different shift.
5. Start the morning right
The morning’s activities set the tone for the entire day. Waking up late, rushing to shower and dress, before scarfing down a toaster pastry is a routine that elevates stress levels before you even leave the door.
Shift the tone by waking early enough to enjoy a more reasonably paced morning, which of course begins by sleeping well the night before. Also consider taking five or ten minutes in the morning to meditate, focusing on the breath and starting the day from that place of stillness.
Eat a healthy breakfast, perhaps fruit, granola and yogurt, oatmeal, or an egg with a slice of whole-wheat toast. Fill up the tank of your body and mind before leaving the house so you have the energy to engage the day with enthusiasm.
6. Take advantage of your breaks
Don’t spend your breaks sitting at your desk, messing with your phone. Do something that will make you smile or make you feel rejuvenated. Go outside for a few minutes. Read a book. Put your earbuds in, turn on some happy music, and dance in the break room. This list of self-care ideas has a some great ideas to make the best of your break, like cloud-watching, deep breathing exercises, or planning a future vacation.
Some companies are even incorporating unique breakrooms to help their employees stay at their best. Nap rooms, yoga spaces, and games have all been incorporated into some successful companies.
7. Keep moving
Sitting for long periods without moving has been linked to several different health conditions, such as obesity, cardiovascular issues, and diabetes. Staying immobile is also not a good thing for people with chronic pain. Try to stand up and stretch for a couple minutes every hour, or take a quick walk around the office. Instead of emailing your coworker a question, walk to his or her desk and ask in person. Consider walking or biking to work. If you have chronic pain at work, that may not be an option. Instead, park at the far end of the parking lot, or ride the elevator to the floor below your destination and take the stairs the rest of the way up.
8. Pack a bag
Knowing that you’re prepared for a potential pain flare can really help with stress levels. Make sure you’ve got water and any medications you might need, plus a healthy lunch so you don’t have to brave the cafeteria food, but don’t stop there. A few other items you might find helpful for chronic pain at work include:
- A comfy outfit (but let your boss know why you’re wearing sweats at work)
- A heating pad or ice pack
- A comfort food that won’t spoil, like chocolate (as long as it won’t worsen your pain)
- Something bland to nibble on, like crackers, in case you need something to eat with pills
9. Make workplace suggestions
Teachers often encourage their students to voice questions by pointing out that if they have a question, odds are someone else is wondering the same thing. The same can be true for your workplace. If the flickering fluorescents in the break room bother you, they probably bother other people, too. If a coworker’s floral-scented candle triggers headaches and nausea, politely ask him or her not to use it at work anymore. Request that the cafeteria or vending machines offer a few healthier options. Ask permission for you and your coworkers to spruce up an outdoor space with benches, flowers, shrubs, or a tree, or recruit a few colleagues to help you spend a weekend beautifying the breakroom.
Approach your boss respectfully and tactfully with workplace suggestions, and be realistic. If you need specific accommodations because of a disability, consider following this example format to write a request letter. Know what accommodations you’re entitle to under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you’re being denied a reasonable accommodation, do your research and, if warranted, file a charge.
10. Watch your stress levels
Between deadlines, catty coworkers, and brash bosses, working may bring home the bacon, but it can also drive a person crazy. Work stress affects as many as 70% of all U.S. adults. Meanwhile, the detrimental health effects linked to chronic tension leads experts to attribute as many as 10% of all strokes specifically to work stress, according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS).
While all this anxiety is likely harming your health, fortunately, there are many ways to manage it.
Why is managing work stress so important?
Long-term stress leaves your body in the so-called flight-or-flight response semi-permanently. That increases the risk for high blood pressure, weight gain around the stomach—one of the more dangerous areas to carry excess fat—and inflammation, which is important to manage for people with chronic pain.
Stress is the underlying cause of as many as 60% of all human diseases, according to AIS. Tension not only makes it difficult to get through the day, but can also elevate your risk of stroke by 50% and heart disease by 40%. Heart disease is the top killer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Keep in mind there are two types of stress—acute and long-term. Acute stress can actually be beneficial. It gives you that rush of adrenaline to knock the boss’ socks off during that important meeting or help you find inspiration you didn’t know you had just before a big deadline.
The problem is when stress levels stay elevated over time. Here’s how to make sure they come down.
Establish a good sleeping routine
The foundation for a good day actually begins the night before, with a solid seven or eight hours’ rest.
Getting enough sleep is critical for making it through the day with less work stress. Being well-rested ensures you have the energy reserves to deal with problems or complications with a level head. Fatigue often makes people impatient and more easily agitated, according to WebMD.
Ironically, many people are sleeping less so they can work more, according to research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). People who worked multiple jobs or had longer commutes were most likely to sleep fewer hours.
While getting enough sleep is critical for optimal functioning and reducing stress, feeling tension is ironically a common reason why people find it difficult to sleep.
To encourage a restful night of shuteye, consider turning off electronics after a certain time and establishing a relaxing nighttime routine. You may meditate, do some gentle stretching, take a bath, or drink a cup of non-caffeinated tea. Taking time to unwind could help you fall asleep faster and enjoy a more restful slumber.
Identify sources of stress
Listing all the items causing you work stress is the first step to figuring out a stress-reduction approach. This is your private list that nobody else will see, so feel free to write down the things you’d never say out loud to anyone. After creating the list, categorize the items, checking off those things that are changeable and those that aren’t.
For example, if you have too many projects on your plate, try to delegate. If you’re not in a position to delegate, talk with your boss and ask for help prioritizing or creating better processes to help you meet deadlines. Bosses want to create a good environment to encourage quality work, so most will be receptive to you coming forward.
Colleagues represent another common source of tension, with as many as 80% of workers reporting strained interactions, reports Fast Company. To alleviate this source of work stress, first consider your own perspectives. Sometimes, colleagues cause stress because they remind us of people in our past. Once you realize this, it could lighten the situation right away.
Another possible solution is to talk with the difficult colleague if they do something that really sets you off. If you’re angry that a coworker cut you off in a meeting, try to have a rational discussion about it after you’ve cooled down and learn where that person is coming from, and then calmly tell that person how you feel. Ultimately, keep in mind that not everybody will be a best friend. Keep it professional, but also set boundaries so you don’t get too irritated.
Sometimes, you just have to shift your focus to other things and try not to get caught up in situations you can’t control.
Enjoy time away from work
People often let work stress gnaw at them even when away from their desks, creating tension that permeates all their lives. Work life balance is often elusive, and that balance will look different every day, but try to carve out periods of fun.
Take time to go hiking, exercise, and do the other activities you enjoy. Set boundaries such as not checking email after a certain time. Take vacations and avoid working while enjoying time away.
What other tips do you have for managing chronic pain at work?