- Debbie Dougherty
How Should I Talk About My Pain?
Updated: Apr 2
I have been in a lot of pain lately. Not the existential kind. The physical kind. It has been going on for close to five months and I am starting to feel some level of exhaustion. Trying to work and carry on while in pain is kind of like trying to work with your thumbs on backward. You can probably do it, but it is awkward and unpleasant.
As the American Psychological Association tells us, pain is important, but it is way more than just physical:
Pain serves an important purpose by alerting you to injuries such as a sprained ankle or burned hand. Chronic pain, however, is often more complex. People often think of pain as a purely physical sensation. However, pain has biological, psychological and emotional factors. Furthermore, chronic pain can cause feelings such as anger, hopelessness, sadness and anxiety. To treat pain effectively, you must address the physical, emotional and psychological aspects.
Empathy and Pain
It is funny how pain seems so insubstantial when it is not yours. Not that we don’t have empathy for people experiencing pain. We do. But we can’t see or feel their pain. We know there is something there, but we can’t touch it. Worse, we can't make it better. We can't fix it. It makes our communication with those experiencing chronic pain "a strange combination of one-upmanship and cliché." Communication scholars Jade Huell and Jennifer Erdely call this empathy guilt–the communicative practice of expressing one’s sorrow at the inability
to fully inhabit the experience of others.
Bias, Prejudice, and Perceptions of Pain
Research is clear that not all pain is perceived or treated the same. Both health care providers and your average person, believe that women, Black people, and those people who live in poverty, experience less pain than their comparative counterparts. That is just weird. Right? Not only does bias and prejudice impact perceptions of pain, but it also impacts treatment by healthcare practitioners, with Black people often receiving almost no pain management beyond over the counter NSAIDs like Tylenol and Ibuprofen.
Pain takes so much from us. It doesn’t just hurt. It removes pleasure from those things we enjoy. It takes our hobbies and makes them acts of determination. It removes the flow from work--you know, those moments when you lose time in a task. Instead, you become intensely aware of time.
My pain is in my neck and surrounding muscles. Over the last months I have stopped reading for pleasure. I have stopped lingering over developing my lectures for class. I have stopped doing home improvement activities—like finishing the workbench in my workshop, or redesigning my closet, or making my kid’s platform for her bed.
I am so unbelievably privileged to have good health care. I have had x-rays. I have weekly physical therapy. I have seen a chiropractor. I feel so much better. And while I am not 100%, writing today is only mildly painful, a reminder of what was and what could be.
Working in Pain
Given that pain is the number one reason why people seek medical help, and given the number of people who suffer from chronic pain, I was shocked to find so little research on how people communicate about pain in the workplace. Research is clear that work can cause pain. Workplace accidents, ergonomic injuries, and psychosocial injuries are common.
What are psychosocial injuries? Psychosocial risks arise from poor work design, organisation and management, as well as a poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression.
Take sexual harassment as an example. As I wrote in my book, *Sexual Harassment in Organizational Culture, The negative outcomes include chronic mental health conditions, lowered life satisfaction, damaged identity, feelings of isolation, lowered job performance and commitment, and physical illness that occurs with prolonged stress. In fact, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most well documented outcome of sexual harassment. Yep. Targets of sexual harassment experience outcomes similar to people who have fought in a war.
Communicating Pain at Work
Given that work creates physical, psychological, and emotional pain, why has there been so little research on how we communicate about pain in the workplace? This is my challenge to both organizational and health communication scholars. What is the best way to communicate our pain at work? It is time to figure it out.
My pain will go away. It is already on the way out. When I told my colleagues that I could not complete projects at this time, they were kind and considerate. But my pain is not chronic (at least I hope not). What is the right way to talk about pain at work? For human resource professionals, for managers, for colleagues, how should we communicate with others about their pain?
So you tell me. What are our action steps this week?
What are your best practices.
For my youngest readers (I have several high school students reading my blog), how would you like pain to be discussed?
For those who have been in the work world, how do you manage pain while at work?
For my mature readers, please provide your wisdom.
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Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer.
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*If you are looking for an electronic version of the Sexual Harassment and Organizational Culture book, you can find one at Cognella publishing. We hope to make it available through retail outlets like Amazon and Barnes and Nobles in the near future.