Work can be a real pain

Mar 01 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

American workers are much more likely to struggle into work when they are ill than a decade ago, with many dragging themselves into the office even when they are in chronic pain.

A survey by the National Pain Foundation (NPF) has found that persistent, chronic pain has risen dramatically, up some 40 per cent, among full-time U.S. workers in the past 10 years.

At the same time, there has been a growing trend towards "presenteeism", which in turn can have a dramatic impact on an organisation's levels of morale and productivity.

At the same time a UK survey has found more half of British workers believe they work in an unhealthy environment and that it is almost inevitable they will catch a cold or other illness from a work colleague.

The NPF poll of more than 1,000 workers found the prevalence of chronic pain - defined as pain that lasts for at least six months - was now much more common in the workplace, at 26 per cent, than it was in 1996 (19 per cent).

What's more, almost nine out of 10 employees with chronic pain typically went to work rather than staying home, the survey found.

The same percentage reported experiencing chronic pain at work "often" or "sometimes".

And the vast majority Ė 95 per cent Ė said their pain had to be either moderately or very severe before they stayed home from work.

"Chronic pain appears to be increasing in prevalence among U.S. workers as Americans age and lead more sedentary lifestyles," said Rollin Gallagher, editor-in-chief of the NPF website and clinical professor and director of the Center for Pain Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

"This survey indicates that employees with chronic pain must become their own advocates, understand the impact of their chronic pain and work with their healthcare provider to identify appropriate treatment options," he added.

More positively, more than two-thirds of employers now offered workplace "wellness" programmes to employees, compared with 40 per cent in 1996.

But while the number of wellness programmes was relatively high, the number that addressed chronic pain was not.

Just over a fifth of wellness programmes included a component about preventing or living with chronic pain conditions.

"We have seen some improvement in the recognition of pain-related illness in the workplace, and that should be commended," said Dr Gallagher.

"But more U.S. businesses should invest in these wellness programs. Once employees are given the tools to better understand and manage their pain successfully, they can begin to improve many areas of their lives affected by their chronic pain," he added.

The UK survey, by manufacturer Yakult, found that 7.5 million people had taken a day off work because of a cold or flu-like symptoms, with four out of 10 felling it was inevitable they would pick something up from a co-worker.

Much as in the U.S, 95 per cent admitted to going to work while ill and nearly half said they took calls from the office when ill.