“Work through the pain”: this advice can sometimes feel as if the person giving it has no idea what they are talking about. Sure, finishing that final sit-up or leg lift is one thing, but what about people who deal with chronic pain at work every day?

Chronic pain is an “invisible” illness. People with invisible illnesses are suffering even though they are not walking with a cane, sitting in a wheelchair, or nursing a leg or an arm in a cast. As surely as people with assistive devices need accommodations at work, so, too, do those suffering from chronic pain. Here are some ways that employers can help their employees suffering from invisible illnesses to cope better at work, along with some ways that employees can help themselves.


There are a few things that employers can do that will make the work life of employees with invisible illness (and all employees in general) better and more accommodating.

Offer tele-commuting options

Invisible illnesses include chronic pain, mental illness, digestive disorders (e.g., Crohn’s disease and celiac), lupus, and many other disorders that are not readily apparent. A person suffering from an invisible illness can be fine one day (or one hour) and then not well the next. A workplace that offers employees the options to work from home on days when they are physically unable to come to work will see its productivity and loyalty rise among workers. Some studies also show that tele-commuting (also called teleworking) boosts morale and decreases employee turnover. This is doubly good for those with invisible illnesses, as they are more likely to lose their job when they miss work unexpectedly.

Create a break room

In many office environments these days, what passes for a break room is a bleak, closet-sized space with a tiny refrigerator and a dirty microwave. Employers can do better than that by enlarging the space to include a couch or comfortable chair. A break room that opens to a shaded or covered outdoor space can be an excellent option, as spending even a few minutes in nature has an immediate effect on mood.

Encourage breaks

In addition to providing a place to take a time out from the daily grind, encourage employees to take an hourly break of at least two minutes. Studies show that the risk of mortality drops by 33% when people stand up and walk around for two minutes of every hour. Too much sitting is an endemic problem that has health consequences that go beyond simply being out of shape: cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and more. Help employees stay healthy by encouraging them to walk to deliver messages to their colleagues (instead of email) or take a trip to an actual water cooler (instead of treating Facebook or Twitter like a virtual water cooler).

Know the law

Chronic pain and some other invisible illnesses fall under the regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and thus require employers to offer reasonable accommodations for those employees who fulfill the requirements of proof. This federal law applies to all businesses with 15 or more employees.


Just as employers have obligations to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees, employees can help employers by taking a few actions themselves.

Know the law

As with employers, employees should make themselves familiar with their right to reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Not all invisible illnesses will qualify for accommodations under the ADA, but if they do, the employee must provide proof. Employees can also request accommodations using a list of what is defined as “reasonable.”

Talk to your employer

Clear and open communication is the best way to approach working with invisible illnesses. If an employee routinely calls in sick, misses deadlines, or leaves early, the employer will view them as a detriment to the company. Explaining an invisible illness is not the same things as making excuses for it. If an open dialogue exists, an employer and employee have a better chance of working out a plan for when the employee is not feeling well. This could include tele-commute options, working a different schedule (i.e., if the employee’s best time of day is later in the day, working a later shift), or dividing the workday over more days.

Take care of yourself on the job

It is a widely held belief that employers are required to give employees breaks, but that is not quite correct. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines breaks but does not require employers to give employees any breaks (with the exception of certain trades). Fortunately, the vast majority of employers do offer their employees meal breaks, but others are not always as common. Take matters into your own hands by taking a short hourly break to stand, stretch, and get a change of scenery. Drink plenty of fluids during the day and you will need to take a break at least hourly. For invisible illnesses like fibromyalgia, too much sitting can increase pain. Even a little bit of regular movement can help.

Do your best

On good days, do the best work you can. On bad days, do the best work you can. Recognizing that “best” is a fluid measurement can go a long way towards increasing the quality of your work and your productivity. Try to schedule tasks that require the most attention during the times you are feeling your best, and leave those that require less thoughtful attention for when you begin to tire or feel unwell. Communicate this plan with your employer so they can help you schedule your day appropriately.

Working with an invisible illness requires planning and accommodation on behalf of employer and employee. How does your employer help you work with an invisible illness?

Image by Ian Collins via Flickr