Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Managing Pain at Work

There's a kind of rule that people stop having bodies when they get to work, at least in jobs that do not involve obvious physical labour.  To be professional is to stick to ideas and tasks and objectives. That means that while we may ask "how are you?" we really mean something like "of course you are fine because you are at work." We mean this although we all have experience of the difference between working when we feel well and working when we are in pain.

How do you feel when you think about police officers, fully armed and allowed to drive, on patrol while suffering from migraine, back pain or sleep deprivation?  What about when you think of your doctor or nurse making decisions or giving medication while distracted by pain?  Perhaps the person marking your child's exam is suffering from a repetitive strain injury or nerve problem.

Someone in pain is and is not disabled. They do not want to give up the chance to do their work and we, as a society, do not want to give up claim to their abilities. Someone in pain can work. And yet, it is obvious to us when we are in pain that we make all kinds of changes to accomodate our physical selves. We sit (and look up at people standing). We take breaks (often using washrooms as a place to hide for a few moments of privacy). We send signals that we are tense and uncomfortable (because we are). People read us differently because we are different when we are in pain.

Pain management is a workplace issue.  It's not enough to pretend that professionals are people who can turn off the connections between their minds and their bodies. They need those connections to think and perform at their best.  It's also not enough to pretend that if you're well enough to get to work, you are not really in pain. For many people, pain is a daily reality.  Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that all smart, professional people are healthy and began to find out how smart, professional people work around their pain.

Pain is a signalling system. It lets us know that something is changing or needs to change in our bodies. When we deal with pain, we learn how to deal with messages that are difficult and frightening and useful. This is not at all pleasant, but it might be a survival skill. It's time we got smarter about using our experience of physical pain as a model for dealing with workplace pain. After all, we already talk about businesses as bodies that bleed money or are crippled by debt.

The next time you catch someone wincing at work, don't wonder who has screwed up. Wonder what hurts.  And then wonder what you could learn from the way that person is coping.

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