3 ways managers can support employees living with chronic pain and fatigue

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3 ways managers can support employees living with chronic pain and fatigue
Managers should focus on ways to make workers with chronic pain more comfortable in the office - or let them work from home. kokouu/Getty Images
  • Around one in five adults in the US lives with chronic pain.
  • To better support employees living with chronic pain, meet them with compassion.
  • Accommodations like a standing desk or WFH schedule can improve their experience.

Around one in five adults in the United States lives with chronic pain, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet talking about and receiving accommodations for chronic pain and fatigue is still widely considered taboo in the workplace.

I live with the autoimmune disease vasculitis, which is characterized by chronic fatigue and pain. This means when I go to work, either virtually or in person, my symptoms follow me to my job.

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Managers can do a lot to improve the experiences of employees like me by taking just a few simple steps - here's how.

Be approachable and offer accommodations

Supervisors shouldn't push employees to talk about their chronic pain or fatigue if they don't want to, but rather make themselves more available should an employee want to open up.

"I think by asking open-ended questions about their chronic pain, managers can signal to their workers that they are open to discussing accommodations," Rachelle Scott, director of psychiatry at Eden Health, told Insider. "Meeting employees with compassion is really important here. Many of us show up to work with so much that we don't share with others."

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Scott recommended asking employees if they need to take breaks and encourage them to do so. Supervisors can also ask what types of accommodations would help them avoid triggers for their chronic pain and fatigue.

Other small steps, such as offering options for different types of desks, chairs, or other office equipment, can go a long way.

Vanessa Ford, cofounder of MenoLabs, a company that sells probiotic supplements, told Insider she wasn't comfortable discussing how her scoliosis and insomnia affected her during the workday when she was younger, but this changed when she moved up the corporate structure.

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"I purchased a standing desk and ergonomic chairs so that I could better address my health needs, and I understand that my employees need those same kinds of considerations as well, having suffered from it myself," she said.

Trust employees to work where they're most comfortable

Some employees dealing with chronic pain or fatigue may produce better work from home, as having their own space allows them to better manage their symptoms than if they worked in an office.

Make sure remote work isn't just acceptable but encouraged for members of your team. If you're hiring, also consider making remote work the default option on job descriptions.

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"Throughout the pandemic, remote work has empowered me and others with disabilities," Jennifer Sanchez, a social-media manager for the Cook County government in Illinois who lives with vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, told Insider. "We were able to work safely, efficiently, and productively while also taking care of our health needs."

Recognize that not all chronic illnesses are visible

People with invisible disabilities, such as fibromyalgia, may face an additional barrier of dealing with managers who question just how debilitating their illness could be.

Managers shouldn't question the medical needs of a worker if they're still able to perform their job. One tip is to focus on output or impact rather than hours worked.

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Sara Youngblood Gregory, who lives with arthritis, chronic pain, and injuries from a car accident, told Insider she faced barriers when she needed to go to physical therapy while working as a union organizer.

"I felt my boss gave me an extremely hard time about going to physical therapy, despite the medical necessity and doctor's note I had," she said. "My boss was disabled herself. I'm really grateful I could turn to my staff union for support and guidance."

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