Coping with work and study with chronic pain

We talked to several people who have continued to work or had returned to voluntary or paid work since their pain started. We also talked to people who were studying at university or college.

Work can give people a sense of purpose in life, be a good distraction and give people self-esteem and much needed social contact. Whether or not people can continue in their jobs depends on the type of work they do. People in physically demanding or manual jobs were usually unable to continue, while people in more flexible office environments were often able to keep working.

Several commented that they could be good and efficient workers despite their pain, and that their attendance was often better than people who did not have pain. One woman commented that although people with pain are limited in some areas, they have often developed valuable problem solving skills.

People talked about things that made their work more manageable. Some opted to go part-time or take a less stressful job. Whilst this often meant a drop in income many felt that it was better to keep working in some capacity than to give up altogether.

Changed to a lower grade but less stressful job but feels it is important to keep working because…

Age at interview 47

Gender Female

Age at diagnosis 46

View profile

Good communication with supportive employers and colleagues was crucial. Whilst some were cautious about talking about their pain at work, others felt it was important to educate, or as one woman put it ‘train up’, people so they knew how to help her.

Says her employers and colleagues have been very supportive and she can adapt her routine to suit…

Age at interview 48

Gender Female

View profile

Several people used pain management techniques in their work life including pacing, prioritising and doing the most important tasks when they were at their best and taking regular breaks to stretch and move around or use relaxation techniques (see also ‘Pain management: pacing and goal setting‘ and ‘Pain management: relaxation and distraction‘).

One woman said she made sure she always went out to get her lunch to get a bit of exercise although it was tempting to let others go for her. Some were able to organise their own day and even work at home if necessary – where it was felt to be much easier to manage their pain and meant they did not have to dress for work or travel.

Talks about things that make her working life easier including pacing, equipment and making sure…

Age at interview 27

Gender Female

View profile

Others had an arrangement where they could take annual leave at the last minute if they were having a bad day although this was not always satisfactory as it could eat into holidays.

A couple of people who had to travel for meetings had explained to their employers that they would be more productive if they travelled the night before. One also said that she e-mails or posts heavy documents so she does not have to carry them.

A woman who acted as the disability officer for her workplace pointed out that because of the Equality Act 2010 (previously the Disability Discrimination Act) employers are now legally obliged to accommodate people with disabilities.

Explains that the Disability Discrimination Act now means that employers have to make reasonable…

Age at interview 41

Gender Female

View profile

Many people had adaptations made to their working environment including special seating and desks, footrests, handrests, sloped writing boards and telephone headsets.

Occupational health and safety advisers can also be called upon to help ensure that the workplace is safe. Employers sometimes took responsibility for this although others had an assessment set up through a Disability Employment Adviser (see also ‘Unemployment and return to work‘).

Requested a desk assessment at her workplace and says that the equipment provided by her work is…

Age at interview 42

Gender Female

View profile

When he went back to work he contacted his Disability Employment Adviser and was assessed for…

Age at interview 49

Gender Male

View profile

Not all people worked in a supportive environment. In particular people said that they had been overlooked for promotions; were asked to do things that they could not manage; were disbelieved and unsupported by both employers and colleagues or were viewed by an employer as a good way of upping statistics for employing people with disabilities without providing appropriate support.

Several people that we talked to had been studying when their pain first started. Some had managed to continue with their studies although often they had taken a break or changed courses. Universities and colleges were on the whole very accommodating and had provided special accommodation, computers and laptops, audio-recorders to tape lectures and photocopying services if people found text books too heavy to carry or hold.

There was often money available to support people through university including help with transport costs, although one woman said it had taken her a long time to find out about it. Prospective students with disabilities are recommended to contact their local education authority for advice.

Found out that she was entitled to Disabled Student Allowance which helped her to continue her…

Age at interview 25

Gender Female

View profile

A woman who had realised that the transition from university to work would be difficult had secured special graduate training for people with disabilities. Whilst she would have liked to have worked freelance in a small company she was aware that larger companies were obliged to do more to accommodate her.

She realised that moving from University into a job was going to be difficult so applied for work…

Age at interview 24

Gender Male

Age at diagnosis 18

View profile

A few people who were out of work had gone back to study part-time. People who are registered disabled can often access free courses and training. A few were studying Open University courses which they could do at home sometimes through the internet.

Financial effects of chronic pain

Many of the people we talked to had found it difficult to continue work because of their pain. Expectations and plans often had to be...