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What a Pain

Workers’ chronic discomfort affects a company’s health too

Back By Allen Pierleoni

Hold still, this may hurt.

“The biggest cause of injury in the office setting is inactivity,” Raymond Espinosa, of Espinosa Family Chiropractic in East Sacramento, says. “The ligaments, tendons and joints ‘freeze.’ Movement is the key.”

Those types of injuries can turn into chronic pain — pain that persists longer than six months — and it can contribute to depression, anxiety, energy loss, debilitation, lost productivity and missed days of work, meaning chronic pain isn’t just a problem for an individual to deal with and solve, but it affects a company’s health too.

Medical experts say presenteeism — when a person who is experiencing chronic pain is physically on the job but is so distracted they do not perform at peak — can have a negative effect on morale with coworkers and customers if the condition persists over several months.

However, there are strategies that companies can implement to prevent or alleviate lost productivity and related issues, which come with a huge price tag to employers — more than $225 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A report from the national health agency called “Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2016,” says more than 20 percent of adult Americans suffer from chronic pain and estimates that it contributes to “$560 billion each year in direct medical costs, lost productivity, and disability programs.” The category includes back and neck pain, headaches, arthritis and fibromyalgia, the acute sensitivity to pain linked to the way the brain handles stress.

“The most common problem I see is chronic spinal pain in the lower back or neck, along with orthopedic pain in the joints, shoulders and knees,” says pain specialist Dr. Lee Snook, founder of Metropolitan Pain Management Consultants in Sacramento. “The whole purpose of pain management is to reduce patients’ pain in order to restore their functionality and ability to engage in the activities of their daily lives, which includes at the workplace. We’re still learning how to do that. We’re all living longer than we were probably engineered to live, and as we age, our bodies give rise to pain. That’s what we address.”

Snook is an advocate of forward-thinking companies that engage in addressing common episodic and problematic issues people experience. “Corporate-sponsored wellness programs are an investment in employees and enhance functionality, productivity and loyalty to the organization,” he says. “The psychology of how we engage in the workforce is very important. In the long run, we have to allow for physical health, which is strongly correlated with mental health. The two go together.”

Part of pain management includes prescription painkillers such as opioids. In light of findings by the National Institute on Drug Abuse earlier this year — between 8 and 12 percent of patients on prescription opioids develop an opioid-use disorder — the pain-treatment community is “grappling with (the relationship between) pain and addiction, and it’s a huge factor,” Snook says.

“Prescribing for patients — if we prescribe at all — has undergone a short-term evolution,” he says. “Taking care of some populations of patients can be very complicated. We’re all actively engaged in trying to solve the problem.”

Chronic-pain management isn’t exclusive to medical doctors. Raymond Espinosa’s chiropractic practice, established in 2001, has a patient base of 600, and he says, “The No. 1 issue I see is low-back pain, followed by neck and shoulder pain, and headaches. The biggest causes are repetitive motion over time, or an old injury that has become unstable.” He says chiropractic adjustments can take pressure off nerves, which reduces inflammation and pain.

His best advice to workers who are bound to their desks is to “avoid sitting in the same position. Try leaning to one side or crossing your legs, and get out of your chair and walk around every 30-60 minutes. Pay attention to posture, and be aware of the risks of bending, lifting, pushing and pulling.”

He says the most asked question his patients ask is, “What did I do to cause this?”

“It’s never one thing, but a thousand little things that add up over time,” he says. Investing in employee health is investing in the success of the business, and there’s a variety of wellness options companies can implement to improve their employees’ physical and emotional well-being, including mandatory breaks, fitness-center memberships, smoking-cessation classes, healthful snacks in the break room, walking meetings (around the block or farther), flexible work hours, employee-assistance programs, peer- recognition celebrations for jobs well done and ergonomic workstations.

One company with wellness initiatives is Dignity Health, which employs 8,000 workers in the Sacramento region and another 42,000 in California, Nevada and Arizona, according to Lori Maloney, Dignity’s regional director of employee health.

“We’re always looking for new ideas to encourage health and wellness,” Maloney says. “A lot of our programs allow our employees to care for themselves, and we see a lot of attendance. They’re a constant reminder to care for ourselves.”

Among Dignity’s offerings are one-on-one ergonomic workspace evaluations, in-house yoga, employee assistance programs and a weight-loss challenge. Some facilities have even pioneered their own programs.

Company-wide, employees participated in a 30-day, 30-mile walking challenge, a warm-up for the Sept. 28, Sacramento Heart & Stroke Walk, cosponsored by Dignity and the American Heart Association. Dignity also has weekly farmers markets in the parking lots of most of its facilities.

“We highlight seasonal fruits and vegetables and recipes, so employees can shop right there at their workplaces,” Maloney says. “We would lose the engagement of our employees without our programs, and we want to ensure them that we’re here to support them. When we do that, I feel like I belong to an organization I want to be with.”