Managing Pain at Work

Managing Pain at Work

By Anita M. Unruh PhD, MSW, OT(C), RegNS

Why should you tell your employers about your pain?

Work is a big part of your day. You need to feel productive and be able to complete your work in a way that reflects you at your best . Having chronic pain and trying to do your best work as if you had no pain will not help. It may make the pain worse.

Your employer will not realize that you have pain if you do not tell her about it. She may not understand your need for medical appointments, your need to pace your work, or your needs to change how you work. She may make incorrect assumptions about your actions because she does not know about your situation. You will need your employer on your side to help you do your best work.

Importance of ergonomics in your workplace setting

How you work may contribute to the pain that you experience. It may make the pain worse. There are different work situations that can make your pain worse. These include:

  • Having your chair at the wrong height
  • Keeping your keyboard in the wrong position
  • Repeating the same action over and over again
  • Lifting heavy objects incorrectly
  • Working long periods without breaks
  • Standing for long spells on a hard surface.


Your workplace, or the way that you work, may have its own unique characteristics that may set off your pain.

It is not always easy to see for yourself what aspects of your work may cause you pain. There are health professionals with training in ergonomics. These include occupational therapists, physical therapists, kinesiologists, and ergonomists. Some workplaces employ one of more of these health professionals in order to improve workplace health and safety. They are skilled in helping you and your employer to improve the ergonomic factors that may affect you working at your best.

If you are involved in a return-to-work program, a work hardening program, or a program with the Worker’s Compensation Board, you may also meet one or more of these professionals. These types of programs are designed to re-educate and retrain your body in the tasks that are associated with a workplace injury.

How an occupational therapist (OT) can help

Occupational therapists are interested in you as a whole person. They help to enable you to enjoy meaningful and productive activities or occupations in your life. They consider the physical, environmental, social, and psychological components of where you live and work, and how you do your work

Occupational therapists assess the impact of pain on your everyday life. They focus on your:

  • Self-care
  • Paid and unpaid work
  • Interests and leisure pursuits
  • Habits or routines
  • Family relationships
  • Relationships with your employer

They are especially attentive to how psychosocial and environmental factors aggravate your pain. They can help you to use pain management strategies with the activities you want to do.

Occupational therapists focus on helping you to reduce disability and improve function. This can help increase your ability to do what you want to do, as well as you are able to do it.

An occupational therapist will talk with you about your goals and how you would like to achieve them. She will assess your pain and its impact on your level of function and disability, and overall quality of life. Depending on your goals and preferences, the occupational therapist may work with you individually or in groups.

The occupational therapist can help you to:

  • Understand your pain
  • Make sure that you feel supported by others
  • Develop strategies to help you continue to do activities that are important in your day-to-day life.

With your permission, an occupational therapist can also work with others in your network such as employers, teachers, and family.

Resources to help you in the workplace

The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists has a special website for people who have concerns about their health and well-being. There are several sections that are written for people living with chronic pain. To find out more go to www.otworks.ca.

Within the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists website, you can find information about the following:

Where to purchase items for your workplace

Your occupational therapist can help you find local sources for items to reduce pain or disability in your workplace or home. There are also items you can buy to help if you have restricted movement.

Another alternative is to go to the otworks website. Click on the link to find quick tips on buying special equipment: http://www.otworks.ca/otworks_page.asp?pageID=688

Tips for promoting a pain friendly work environment

If you spend much of your time at a desk, make sure your chair, desk, and computer are right for you.

  • Take frequent, five-minute breaks at work especially if you sit, stand, or move in one position for long periods of times.
  • Reduce lifting and bending with heavy objects. When you lift, keep your knees bent and objects close to your body. Avoid twisting as you lift. Ask for help.
  • Pay attention to factors at work that aggravate your pain. Use strategies that seem to reduce it.

Tips for promoting health and well-being when you live with pain

  • Try to increase your physical activity. Improving your physical strength and flexibility may help you manage pain. Begin with gentle and slow activity. Increase as your body adapts to the physical challenge. Consult your doctor about trying something new such as yoga, or QiGong.
  • Combine physical activities with spending time with family or friends. This can help you stay committed.
  • Incorporate enjoyable leisure activities into your day. Moments of enjoyment can help distract you from the pain. Concentrate on these activities and remember them as something that is not about pain. Even short, 15- to 20-minute periods of enjoyment will help you relax and enjoy.
  • Eat healthy and see a dietician if necessary.
  • Consult with a health professional if you need help with sleep.
  • Use your own spiritual understanding to help you cope with pain in a way that is meaningful to you. Talk to a spiritual leader if this would help you.

For more information about occupational therapy and the workplace, click on the following links in the otworks.ca website: