3.37 million Australians were living with chronic pain in 2020, and of those, 68.3% are of working age.
According to Pain Australia, pain is an unpleasant feeling, causing a reaction to protect the part that is painful. If you have experienced pain before, you know what it is, but that doesn’t mean you understand another person’s pain. Pain is a subjective experience. To make it even more complex, different factors affect how we experience pain. Our emotions, our social support system, our past history, our genetics and our environment influence our perception of pain.
Pain can be related to a particular health condition, accident or injury (e.g. falling down the stairs and hurting your knee), have a gradual onset (e.g. due to repetitive movements and overuse), or have no clear cause or reason.
Pain becomes chronic when it goes on for more than three months, or past normal healing time. Common conditions related to chronic pain include:
Chronic pain can affect a person’s ability to perform job duties effectively. The physical and psychological toll of chronic pain can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (being at work but not fully engaged or productive), and decreased job satisfaction.
Best practice pain research recommends a whole-person view and a multidisciplinary approach.
“To be successful pain managers, we may have to use a combination of strategies such as medications, movement, diet, relaxation, thinking strategies, and more.” (Chronic Pain Australia)
As we noted before, pain is a complex subjective experience that is affected by many factors. The bio-psychosocial model of pain describes the dynamic interplay between biological, psychological, and social factors that vary from individual to individual. Understanding this and exploring the topic of empathy is critical for supervisors and managers to assist in their workers’ and team’s recovery.
“We need to treat everyone as an individual”, says Cameron Hooper, Workplace Health Provider at Work Healthy Australia. “Everyone is on their own journey which includes periods in our lives when we experience pain.”
“You have to listen to each patient and try your best to understand their story. You have to treat them as if they were your mother, your sister or brother. Treat them with that level of respect and care. You are there to see the person in front of you. Respect them and do your best to help them,” he says.
Cameron says that in his experience, some workers are fearful of losing their job or income if they seek treatment for a sore joint or an injury. Some injured workers might be having troubles at home, financial stress, going through conflict at work, or worrying about their children. All these things can impact their pain and are important for us to appreciate.
Cameron, says that as he treats his patients for musculoskeletal injuries, he listens to their stories, learns about their backgrounds, their workplace dynamics.
“This forms an important part of the treatment,” he says. “I’ve treated workers who were experiencing pain but didn’t feel their supervisors or managers believed them. Having unsupportive managers and not being believed can add negatively to their pain experience and recovery process.”
Our headspace is crucial for faster recovery and better prognosis. If the patient feels they are not being heard, not being believed, their supervisor is not demonstrating empathy or understanding, it creates a cycle that will negatively impact that their recovery. We need to cultivate an optimum environment for workers.
By implementing these strategies, you can create a supportive environment that helps employees with pain effectively manage their condition, maintain productivity, and improve overall wellbeing.
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