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Chronic pain stigma prevents employees speaking up

Over a quarter of adults in the UK are living with chronic pain conditions, and are having to manage them in the workplace.

According to research from the BBC, 26% of UK adults deal with some form of chronic pain.

Angela Matthews, head of policy at the Business Disability Forum, suggested that many employees suffering from it chronic pain may be cautious about speaking up.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: "For the person experiencing the pain there is not only the management of the pain itself, but also the sense of feeling low and uncomfortable in your body for a lot of your working day, and not knowing yourself when you can tell your employer when (or if) you will be pain free.

"I spoke to an employee with chronic pain recently, and I asked why she feels people don’t talk about it as much as other conditions. Their response was, 'Why would they? Pain reminds humans that we are fragile, that we can suffer, and that sometimes it cannot be easily fixed. No one wants to acknowledge that'."

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Chronic pain is defined by the NHS as pain that lasts for longer than three months despite treatment, and while it can be caused by physical injuries, it can also have no clear cause.

The research also showed that 24% of those with chronic pain are taking opioid pain killers, and a further 23% are on a waiting list for either surgery or a pain management programme.

Matthews added that employers need to respect how chronic pain sufferers manage their conditions.

“We also need to become better at taking an individual approach to how we decide what employees can and cannot do, not just because of their pain, but because of the medication they rely on to manage their pain.

"There is still so much stigma and discomfort among others about taking medication – particularly opioids, injections, prescription painkillers, and anti-depressants which can also be used to manage pain."

Employers have a responsibility to help workers manage their conditions however they can, she argued. 

"Employers can't take away a person's pain, but they can help them manage it," she said. "Being able to work in a flexible way can be important. 

"Flexibility around hours means that people can take breaks when they need to and providing spaces in working environments can allow people to move around, stretch, and do gentle movements, which may have been advised by their pain management teams.