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Chronic Pain: The 'Silent Disorder'

From headaches to respiratory conditions to arthritis, many Americans battle chronic pain on and off the job. But often they hide those conditions from their employers due to social stigmas and out of fear of being viewed as incompetent.

"Generally speaking, chronic pain and other physical and mental disorders have been categorized as 'silent disorders' in the workplace simply because most employees are afraid of the consequences if employers find out," says Wayne Hochwarter, an associate professor of management in Florida State University's College of Business.

Hochwater, who has conducted several studies to examine the role of chronic pain on work factors such as job stress, employee performance and organizational profitability, says his research shows that chronic pain at work has a significant effect on both the worker and the organization.

For example, higher levels of chronic pain are associated with:

  • More conflict on the job.
  • Less-effective communication.
  • An inability to focus on tasks that require sustained concentration.
  • Less enthusiasm for the job.
  • Fewer favorable interactions with co-workers and supervisors.
  • Less support from the organization.
  • More job tension.
  • Higher levels of depressed mood (feeling "blue" on the job, etc.).

Hochwarter says his research also indicates that the bottom-line consequences of chronic pain are significant.

In one study, Hochwarter asked more than 2,000 employees to report the number of hours per week that pain caused them to be ineffective.

"The results indicate that chronic pain accounts for over 5 hours per week of lost productivity," he says. "When projected over the course of the year, we are talking about more than $5,000 per employee."

According to Hochwarter, this result does not take into consideration indirect costs, which can double or triple the amount.

"An inability to be productive also affects customer retention and increases bottlenecks caused by not keeping up with others, not to mention the costs associated with absenteeism, tardiness and ongoing medical treatment," he says.

The answer, Hochwarter suggests, is for employers to take a proactive approach to help minimize some of these undesirable effects.

"First, education and communication can go a long way in reducing the stigma of chronic pain as a weakness," he says. "Also, organizational support, even if it is only in the form of empathy, may help sufferers get through the roughest days."

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