Imagine your company’s communications manager hurt her back a few years ago while doing yard work, and it hasn’t felt the same since. All the news she reads today is about COVID-19, and it makes her feel tense and stressed. Her back starts to hurt more than usual. Normally, getting some exercise at the gym helps – but gyms across the country are closed because of COVID-19. She’s busy at work, but the pain is becoming more and more of a distraction. She starts to worry that her back pain will never get better.
Research has long found that mental health and back pain are connected. With COVID-19 bringing unprecedented changes to how we work, anxiety is inevitable. And employees living with chronic pain conditions and mental health challenges need support more than ever.
These two conditions also make it more difficult to focus while working, even under normal circumstances. Mental illness and back pain at work are the top two contributors to presenteeism – when employees are at work but unable to focus. Unfortunately, these two conditions often go hand-in-hand: chronic pain and depression occur together 30 to 50% of the time.
HR teams can support all employees, especially those living with these comorbid conditions, by providing reliable guidance and supportive benefits available remotely.
Mental health tools to share with employees
Emotional wellbeing can impact pain in a few different ways. Contrary to popular belief, when we feel pain, it isn’t necessarily in response to tissue damage. For example, people can still experience pain even after an original injury has healed.
Persistent stress causes muscle tension that can lead to back pain. Stress can also make the nervous system more reactive and sensitive to pain, even to stimuli that normally wouldn’t cause pain, like being lightly brushed against.
Pain neuroscience education, a foundation of the Fern Health program, is a way of changing how people perceive pain by understanding how it works in the brain.
Lauren Szu-Tu, RN, MSN, Certified Health Coach and Manager of Clinical Services at Fern, is trained in pain neuroscience education (PNE), and shared a few PNE skills that HR managers can share with their teams.
Sleep hygiene: Whether you can’t get comfortable because your lower back feels tense, or your mind is racing with the day’s worries, both chronic pain and anxiety can both be detrimental to sleep. Loss of sleep can increase stress and irritability, and make it more difficult to focus during the workday. People with chronic pain are more than twice as likely to report that sleep loss interferes with their work.
To help, create a sleep routine. Turn off electronics an hour before bedtime – light from these devices has been shown to decrease the body’s natural production of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone.
Feeling anxious before bed? Try writing down worries and to-do items in a notebook. This practice can help you clear your mind and prepare for sleep.
While it’s more difficult to get a good workout with gyms closed and time outside limited, try and exercise for at least a short time every day. In a National Sleep Foundation survey, 83% of people who exercised at any time of day reported sleeping better than those who didn’t exercise at all.
Keep moving: Speaking of exercise, it doesn’t only have an impact on sleep. Exercise also releases chemicals in the body that help reduce stress, as well as pain.
Try simple exercises at home to get your heart rate up, such as marching in place or climbing the stairs in your house. Combine a few different yoga poses you know are safe and comfortable for you to create your own routine. It’s more challenging to exercise today with COVID-19 restrictions, but even getting a small amount of movement into your day can help.
Mindful breathing: When we think of relaxing, deep breathing might immediately come to mind. Focusing on your breathing can help, but focusing too much on inhaling your breath can actually make you feel more stressed. Inhaling is another way to prepare the body to respond to stressful stimuli.
One kind of mindful breathing exercise is called four-square, or box, breathing. Follow these steps to try it:
- Sit in a comfortable chair, or on a pillow on the floor. Make sure you’re sitting up straight – this will help you take deep breaths.
- To start, slowly inhale as you count to four in your head. Then hold for another count of four.
- Next, exhale slowly as you count to four in your head. Then hold here for another count of four.
- Aim to repeat four times. If you start to feel dizzy, your counts may be too slow. Stop and rest.
How else can employers help?
As COVID-19 restrictions continue, employees have limited access to physical therapy, psychological care, and regular exercise. Employers can help by offering a wellness benefit like Fern Health that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of musculoskeletal pain.
In response to COVID-19, Fern is currently offering a limited-time discount for employers interested in offering Fern Health’s 100% remote program to their employees with low back pain. Get in touch to learn more about how we can support your teams during this challenging time.