Chronic Pain

Unemployment and return to work

We talked to people who were still in work or had returned to work since their pain started; those who were unable to work because of pain and people who had retired. We also talked to people who were studying or retraining (see also 'Coping with work and study').

Many people found it difficult to work because of pain. Having to stop work was described as a devastating blow, which not only incurred financial loss and loss of independence, but also loss of a career that people had worked hard for and loved. One man said it was not until he reached retirement age that he actually reconciled himself to this loss. Like many others he commented on the loss of a network of friends.

Many people felt guilty about not working and suspected that they were labelled a 'shirker' or a fraud particularly if they claimed unemployment benefits (see also 'Financial effects and benefits'). Others, men in particular, felt guilty that their partner had to go out to work (See also 'Relationships and sex life').

How people finished work varied. Some, who had a sudden onset of pain or an injury, had not been able to return to work, particularly if their jobs were physical. A few had been on long-term sick leave and were eventually told by their employers that they were not fit for work. This could be frustrating because people felt that employers made no effort to accommodate them.

A few who felt forced out of work wished they had had the support of a Union and advised others to join.

Some people continued to work but found it a struggle. Some were offered alternative less physically demanding employment but decided it was not for them. A man said he went back too soon and found it hard when everybody tried to help him. Another could not bear the thought of not being the “king pin” and decided to use his redundancy money to open a shop.

A man who found going back to work difficult said that when he was offered a promotion it pushed him over the edge. Several people felt guilty about not performing to the best of their ability and felt that it was not fair on their employers or colleagues who had to “carry them”.

Some opted for redundancy or early retirement. A couple of women said they decided to stop work because their families were suffering and they valued time and health more than the money.

Getting back into work was thought to come with problems. Some found it hard to imagine that they would be able to work or were employable because the pain affected their concentration, made them tired and limited the time that they could do things for.

People in their 50's and 60's sometimes felt that it was late in life to retrain, although a few had learnt computing skills. Others had learnt to practice complementary therapies or considered pursuing work in an area which had previously been a hobby, for example photography.

Some found the employment services difficult to negotiate and unhelpful and were concerned about losing their benefits.

Despite these difficulties, several people had returned to both full and part time work. A woman who had started work as a part-time teaching assistant said it increased her pain but felt it was worth it just to get out of the house.

Another who had been initially reticent about returning to work found out about the '52 week linking' rule which means that benefits are protected for the first year after a person with a disability starts work. A man who had taken early retirement because of pain returned to work as managing director of a company after going on a pain management programme.

Others had gone into voluntary work which they found extremely rewarding. A woman who helped at a local animal welfare centre said that it made her feel part of normal society.

Several people had been involved in pain-related charity work and found it satisfying to use their experiences to help others. Unlike paid employment, people said that they could always have a break if it got too much.

Some viewed voluntary work as a stepping-stone back into paid employment where they could learn new skills.

Last reviewed May 2015.

Last updated November 2010.

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