As I See It: Playing With Pain
March 14, 2016 Victor Rozek
I’m loopy. Heavy drugs can do that to you. I can tell I’m loopy because my brain is operating at the speed of an impaired sloth. But I’d like to think I’m still coherent. Can’t be sure, though, because I’m loopy. (See, I just repeated myself like loopy people do.)
The full effect of pain on productivity in the workplace is unknown. Millions of people go to work under the influence of prescription drugs. And those who have difficulty functioning on drugs stagger through their day enduring chronic pain.
Pain, we are taught, is a private matter. Revealing it brings an element of shame. In our culture we learn from archetypal heroes that real men eat pain like candy and soldier on without complaint. How many movies depict protagonists who are either shot, or stabbed, or beaten viciously, who then brush themselves off, down a shot of whiskey, and get back in the game. Men earn respect by tolerating pain.
Women are judged by a different standard. They tend to be more disclosing, and are not nearly as timid about asking for support. Needing support causes their pain to be dismissed as frailty. Instead of respect, women earn pity by tolerating pain. But whether the person enduring pain is tagged as heroic or pathetic, the challenges are identical.
Here is a post to a healthcare site from a software engineer seeking help: “Sitting in that desk is what kills me more than anything. It hurts so much. I move a cm in one direction the wrong way and get a lightning bolt of pain shooting though my body. It is wearing me out. I am in so much pain by the end of the day after working and commuting, that when I get home I just want to take pain meds and go to sleep. I don’t have any life left in me for my family. I feel like I’m a complete failure as a mother and a wife.”
It’s a sad irony that people who push themselves for the sake of their family, find they have nothing left to give when they return home at day’s end.
I never thought much about how pain would impact my ability to work until it crushed me. It all started several weeks ago when I volunteered to perform an unnatural act. No, not that unnatural act, I offered to vacuum my wife’s office.
There I was on hands and knees reaching with the hose for some flotsam that collected in a corner. I couldn’t quite reach it so I twisted back to grab the vacuum and drag it closer. Bad move. It was then I discovered that life-changing moments can actually occur while vacuuming.
I felt a twinge in my back but so what: everybody over 50 struggles with back pain so I didn’t make much of it. Usually these things resolve themselves with the help of Vitamin I (that would be ibuprofen for the uninitiated), so I popped some pills and pushed on. The pills had no effect. The pain was persistent and increased over the following week. Standing, sitting, and lying down hurt, I couldn’t think of a fourth option. Eventually my wife got tired of hearing my grunts and groans and suggested I do another unnatural thing: see a doctor.
The morning I was scheduled for the appointment the pain amplified like nothing I’ve experienced before; louder than Trump in a presidential debate. WTF, I wasn’t doing deadlifts, or moving a piano, or wrestling a bear. I yanked on a vacuum cleaner. I drove into town swearing and groaning.
An MRI told the story: I had been walking around with three herniated disks, one of which finally fragmented. A chunk lodged against a nerve bundle, which explained why my left hip and leg were on fire.
Pain is the universal leveler, and sooner or later like an unwanted guest it will pay you a visit. But pain or no pain, I still had responsibilities. Life goes on and, oddly enough, if you have a job your employer expects your best effort. Who could have guessed?
The question many pain sufferers grapple with is whether or not to disclose their condition to their employer. Note that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require you to disclose a medical condition on a job application, during an interview, or any other time for that matter. An employer, however, is allowed to ask you questions about potential medical conditions that might hinder you from performing assigned tasks. You may even be required to take a medical examination, provided all applicants for the position are obliged to do so.
If you don’t disclose, you may be robbing yourself of some accommodation that could ease your pain and thus increase your productivity. Perhaps an ergonomic workstation, frequent breaks, or the possibility of working from home would be helpful. The Americans With Disabilities Act has numerous provisions that require employers to provide an obliging workplace. But employers can’t help you if they don’t know you’re suffering.
Nondisclosure, however, is not a guarantee of privacy. You don’t work in isolation. Your pain or your meds may cause you to act curtly toward coworkers, or to avoid them altogether. Choosing not to disclose your condition will leave people free to make up stories about why you behave the way you do. Those stories will not be flattering, and a negative image will unfairly color your reputation.
But full disclosure may also adversely influence your status. Being tagged as “damaged goods” might elicit sympathy, but it could mark you as unreliable. In a progressive company, disclosure should not be an issue. In a company with more traditional values, disclosure may only be valuable if your condition prevents you from doing your job properly.
As for me, I disclosed. Pain meds were clouding my mind. When I was full of drugs I found I was processing information slowly, my concentration was fleeting, and I had difficulty expressing my thoughts. On the other hand, if I cut back too far on the meds, the pain overwhelmed me. Fortunately, I have a gracious employer and was able to get some time off.
But, if you’ve exhausted your sick leave; or are simply tougher than barbed wire and determined to press on, the first thing you have to decide is whether the medication or the pain is more distracting. Finding that balance is tough, but I discovered a window of time prior to and just after taking medication when the effects of the drugs were minimal but the pain was still masked.
Functioning at less than 100 percent has been a difficult adjustment. I found that I was not only fighting the pain and the loopiness, but the angst of feeling broken. That was worse than the injury. But while I had no dominion over getting injured, being mired in angst was elective. It’s a good reminder that although pain is inevitable; suffering, with or without drugs, is optional.