How to talk to your employer about chronic pain

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When you have a chronic condition that makes it difficult for you to work, you have every reason to ask your employer to make reasonable accommodations, so you can continue working.

However, getting your employer to understand what “chronic” means when you’re dealing with any debilitating and painful condition can sometimes be difficult. While slightly more than 20% of Americans are estimated to suffer from chronic pain, the other 80% of people can be very obtuse about what that entails.

Here are some of the things that you (really) may have trouble getting an employer to realize:

  1. You aren’t going to get better soon. A lot of people seem to think that chronic pain and other chronic conditions are “fixable.” There are limits to what science and medicine can do, so the best you can hope for is good pain management. You will need long-term workplace accommodations, not temporary ones.
  2. You will have good and bad days. Chronic pain tends to flare — hard — sometimes. Other times, it can be a virtual nonentity. You still need accommodations even if you have good days — or a streak of them. Your employer shouldn’t interpret a “good spell” as a sign that you no longer need accommodations.
  3. You never know what morning will be like. A shift in the weather or a stressful day at work the day before can cause your condition to flare. One accommodation you may need is a flexible schedule. Your employer needs to recognize that you may look fine once you do make it into work — but that doesn’t mean you weren’t incapacitated earlier before you got things under control.
  4. Well-meaning comments can actually be upsetting and intrusive. Everyone with a chronic condition hears comments like, “Have you tried Keto?” or deals with intrusive questions about their condition or their medication. That’s not a distraction you need at work, and it can make you feel very vulnerable.

Because chronic pain is invisible, some employers don’t treat it as a real disability. If you’ve tried and failed to get workplace accommodations, you may have legal options to pursue.