Supporting Students and Employees with Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain is a general term used to describe long-lasting pain that persists beyond normal recovery periods or occurs alongside another condition. It can be on-and-off or continuous, and is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if it substantially limits a person’s daily activities. Chronic pain can be caused by a wide variety of things, including injury, illness, mental health disorders such as PTSD, ongoing conditions like cancer, autoimmune disorders such as arthritis or Crohn’s disease, and more – there are even cases of chronic pain where no obvious cause or trigger is present. Here, we will describe chronic pain and discuss some best practices for supporting and accommodating students and employees who live with it.

The symptoms of chronic pain can differ a great deal from individual to individual, and, by extension, the limitations it imposes on their day-to-day life. Limitations can include fatigue, sensory issues, difficulty sitting or standing for long periods, intolerances of certain stimuli, and, of course, pain itself. Chronic pain also has a high comorbidity with mental health disorders, so someone dealing with chronic pain may also be dealing with the symptoms of disorders like depression or anxiety. Because the symptoms vary, the accommodations needed by each person with chronic pain vary as well. However, the path to supporting those needs always begins in the same place: communication.

If an employee or student chooses to disclose that they deal with chronic pain, it’s important to proceed with the goal of meeting the individual where they are and making the adjustments needed to help them accomplish their tasks like everyone else. There are a number of questions to consider that one can go over with the individual with chronic pain, including what their limitations are and how it can affect their work, what accommodations are available, and if regular evaluation of those accommodations will be necessary. One ongoing study is looking into the effectiveness of what they call a Pain at Work (PAW) toolkit. The study is extremely in-depth and included steps that may not be applicable in all circumstances, like surveying employees and employers or peer reviews of the toolkit. But the major takeaway is that a PAW toolkit should acknowledge the challenges and concerns of the employee or student and those of the employer or institution, contain multiple resources for the employee or student to self-manage their chronic pain when possible, and additional plans with the employer or institution when self-management isn’t an option.

Management of chronic pain comes down to accommodations, which will be different based on each individual’s needs. These include options like working from home, having an adjusted or flexible schedule, allowing for extra time to complete tasks, specialized or adjustable chairs and other equipment, voice to text software, and more. In the event an employee or student has been away for an extended period due to their chronic pain – or, in the case of students, away for things like summer or winter break – the Kennedy Krieger Institute recommends having a reentry plan in addition to something like the PAW toolkit, as being away from a given environment or routine may require a period to ease back in.

Chronic pain can present a challenge for any employee or student who lives with it, but in an empathetic environment with the right accommodations, they can succeed. It’s a simple matter of taking the time to sit down with your student or employee who discloses chronic pain in order to figure out what those accommodations should be, and coming up with plans if any additional issues arise.

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