Working with chronic pain can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. As a chronic pain patient, you are entitled to certain reasonable accommodations depending on your disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and subsequent amendments in 2008 (ADAA).

What is a disability?

Under the ADAA, the definition of a disability was widened to include any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as hearing, seeing, eating, standing, lifting, or reaching). These impairments must be recorded, such as through a doctor’s note.

This definition was broadened so it could better include conditions that were largely untreated before. Disabilities can be either continuous or episodic in nature. Mental illnesses like depression or autism, or physical conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic pain are now better covered.

It should be noted that “substantially limits” has definitions of its own. Not every impairment will constitute a disability, however the ADAA encourages employers to apply a broad definition to this in order to provide accommodation to the maximum extent permitted.

What are reasonable accommodations?

Any organizations with 15 or more employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations are those that employers can implement without any undue hardship on the business.

Also, reasonable accommodations are only provided for employees who can still perform the essential functions of a job. Therefore, if you are unable to lift more than 15 pounds, but that is an essential function of the job you were hired to do, your employer is not required to change the scope of the job itself. As we’ll discuss, they may be able to provide shortened work hours, break periods, or reassignment, but employers aren’t required to change the job responsibilities.

The process of implementing reasonable accommodations is often a conversation that occurs between the employee and employer. An employer isn’t required to implement every suggestion by the employee, but they must be willing to make changes that will make a substantive improvement in the employee’s work day.

Office modifications

Some of the easiest modifications to make in your work day are bringing in devices that can help you manage your pain or other disability.

For those with fibromyalgia or arthritis, finding ways to stay warm and loose are crucial. You may be able to ask your employer to:

  • Move your desk or office to a warmer part of the office
  • Provide heaters or blankets to help stay warm
  • Allow you to take more frequent breaks to get up and stretch
  • Reduce physical tasks that are not essential to your job responsibilities

For those with back or neck pain, making improvements to the office area itself can often reduce pain. Discuss some of the following options with your employer:

  • Replacing office equipment with more ergonomic options, such as ergonomic keyboards, screen raisers, or reclining chairs
  • Providing a cart or other lifting device to help with moving objects
  • Using a stool or anti-fatigue mat if you have to stand for long periods of time or using a standing desk if the majority of your work is done while sitting
  • Allowing the use of a scooter or golf cart when moving to a faraway location

As you can see, there are many options that are easy for an employer to implement that will help you stay healthier and remain a better employee.

Schedule modifications

In addition to some of the office modifications listed above, there are also schedule modifications that can help disabled employees. When discussing these accommodations with your employer, discuss how making these changes can help you be a more productive and healthier employee.

  • Take more frequent or longer breaks: If your symptoms include fatigue, discuss a modified break schedule with your employer. Perhaps you can work ten hours instead of eight and take longer breaks throughout the day to help reduce your fatigue. If you stand a lot during the day, perhaps you could take on different responsibilities for certain periods to help your legs recover.
  • Shorten your shifts: If possible, your employer may be able to offer shortened shifts for you to take. This normally works best in larger companies where there are multiple employees performing the same role. If you are a secretary staffing the front desk at a small company, however, a shortened shift may not be a viable option for your employer.
  • Work from home: Working from home, or telecommuting, is quickly becoming a more popular option for organizations. Recent research has shown that employees may actually be more productive and positive when working from home, as opposed to the fear of many traditional companies of reduced productivity from at-home workers. For those with chronic pain, working from home may offer a respite from the stresses and time of commuting or working in an office environment. It also allows the employee to work from bed, if necessary.

Asking for reasonable accommodations

As noted earlier, finding the best modifications for you and your employer requires a conversation to begin. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a template for the best way to phrase your initial accommodation request. You’ll also find numerous examples of reasonable accommodations on their website, categorized by condition.

If you have more questions about reasonable accommodations for chronic pain, another great resource is the Q&A article on the topic at Here you’ll find even more information about the ADA, discussing your condition with your employer, your rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and how to best handle accommodations that pertain to prescription painkillers.

Remember, you’ll be the best employee you can be if you take the time to make your work days as healthy and pain-free as possible. We encourage you to consider some modifications that can help you and then talk about them with your employer.

What are some other ideas for reasonable accommodations for chronic pain? 

Image by Phil Roeder via Flickr