Returning to work, good or bad?- a very complex question


One of the main reasons returning to work is a priority in many healthcare systems is simply that compensation and off-work benefits is the most costly portion of the bill for people with ill health. This naturally leads to a strong emphasis in most rehabilitation, especially musculoskeletal rehabilitation in New Zealand, to help people return to work as soon as practicable. At times the process can be brutal. In my own case, after 18 months of working part-time due to post-concussion symptoms after a “mild” traumatic brain injury, I had the hard word put on me to get back to my job or I’d be sent to work back on the wards (after having spent most of my clinical career working in pain management). Not quite the supportive approach I needed when I was having to sleep for at least an hour every afternoon!

I can well remember the pressure of trying to maintain my work output to the satisfaction of my manager, keep my home responsibilities going (I had teenaged children at the time), manage all the paperwork required just to be part of a rehabilitation system, maintain my relationship which was strained just because I had no energy to play or have fun the way I used to. Oh and I had weekly rehabilitation appointments to top it all off! Not easy to keep your cool when everything seems balanced on a knife-edge.

Yet, despite the challenges of going back to work, most accounts of recovery from musculoskeletal pain find that returning to work forms a crucial element in maintaining long-term gains. The study that sparked this post is a good example: Michael Sullivan and colleagues, set in Montreal, Canada, found that returning to work helps to maintain treatment gains in people with whiplash injury. Of the 110 people enrolled in this study, 73 participants returned to work by the end of one year, while the remaining 37 remained off work. Using regression analysis, the researchers found that the relationship  between return to work and maintaining treatment goals remained significant even when confounds such as pain severity, reduced range of movement, depression and thinking the worst (catastrophising) were controlled. What this means is that something about those who returned to work seemed to help them achieve this, and it wasn’t the usual suspects of low mood or that the injury was more severe. What is even more striking is that those who didn’t return to work actually reported worsening symptoms.

There are plenty of arguments against this finding: could it be that those who didn’t return to work just didn’t respond as well to the treatment in the first place? Well – the authors argue no, because they controlled for the things that should have responded to treatment (eg range of movement, mood). Participants in the study returned to work 2 months on average after completing their treatment, and final measurement was on average 10 months later suggesting that it was something to do with being at work that made a difference.

In their discussion, the authors suggest that perhaps those who didn’t return to work were overall less physically active than those who did, compromising their recovery potential. They also note that being out of work is known to be associated with poorer mental health, so perhaps that explains the difference at the end of the trial period. In addition, they point out that perhaps ongoing stress related to having to handle disability claims processes, perhaps even the financial stress of being unable to work might have been influential.

It’s this last point that I think is interesting. There is no doubt that people who encounter the disability systems that fund their treatment and replace their income feel like their autonomy and independence has gone. They feel their world is being manipulated at the whim of case managers, treatment providers, assessing doctors, and even their family.  A sense of injustice can be detrimental to outcomes for people with whiplash, as Sullivan and colleagues showed some years ago (Sullivan, Thibault, Simmonds, Milioto et al 2009), and we know also that social judgements made about people who experience persistent pain are often negative and exert an influence on the experience of pain itself (Bliss, 2016; Schneider et al, 2016).

Working is really important to people – even in a job you don’t especially enjoy, there are important reasons you keep going (even if it’s only for the money! Money in the hand means food for you and yours, power for the lighting and heating, and even a little bit left over for jam on your bread!). In addition to the money, the most commonly asked question when you’re introduced to someone is “and what do you do for a job?” It’s a way of categorising a person, as much as we hate that idea. Work gives us social contact, routine, purpose and allows us a way to demonstrate competence. Without the anchor of working, many people who live with persistent pain feel the burden of social judgement “who are you?”, of ongoing bureaucracy (filling in paperwork), of repeated assessments to justify not being at work, of constantly being asked to attend appointments, of never feeling like time is their own. Balancing the demands of a system that judges you negatively because you are “unfit” against the demands of family and your own needs is an incredibly difficult process – but then again, so is the process of returning to a job where you fear you’ll fail and experience That Pain Again, and where, if you fail, you could lose that job entirely.

I don’t have an answer to how we can make this process easier. I do know that early return to work can be positive if handled well – but handled poorly, can be an extremely unpleasant and stressful process. Vocational rehabilitation providers need to understand both acute and persistent pain. They also need to carefully assess the psychosocial aspects of a job, not just the biomechanical demands. And someone needs to represent the needs of the person living with persistent pain and help them balance these demands carefully.

 

Bliss, Tim VP, et al. (2016)”Synaptic plasticity in the anterior cingulate cortex in acute and chronic pain.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience .

De Ruddere, Lies, et al. (2016)”Patients are socially excluded when their pain has no medical explanation.” The Journal of Pain 17.9 : 1028-1035.

McParland, J. L., & Eccleston, C. (2013). “It’s not fair”: Social justice appraisals in the context of chronic pain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(6), 484-489.

Schneider, Peggy, et al. “Adolescent social rejection alters pain processing in a CB1 receptor dependent manner.” European Neuropsychopharmacology 26.7 (2016): 1201-1212.

Sullivan, M. J., Thibault, P., Simmonds, M. J., Milioto, M., Cantin, A. P., Velly, A. M., . . . Velly, A. M. (2009). Pain, perceived injustice and the persistence of post-traumatic stress symptoms during the course of rehabilitation for whiplash injuries. Pain, 145(3), 325-331.

Sullivan, M., Adams, H., Thibault, P., Moore, E., Carriere, J. S., & Larivière, C. (2017). Return to work helps maintain treatment gains in the rehabilitation of whiplash injury. Pain, 158(5), 980-987. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000871

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2 comments

  1. I think that as in any research there are people who did not belong in the population being studied for whatever reason. I do believe that going back to work is the best thing for MOST people however as in all things there needs to more flexibility to see why the people who did not respond in the way we had hoped are still not at work and I think that is the problem with programs with rigid guidelines

  2. Another insightful analysis of an issue that is often treated with a far too simplistic viewpoint. As you point out, there can be many reasons why returning to work often improves outcomes, including the stress and bureaucracy of claiming out-of-work financial support, and the potential inadequacy of that income.

    Ultimately, I think that return-to-work procedures, the work environment in general and social security procedures for those unable to return to work could all be improved. They could all be more flexible and understanding, which would no doubt greatly improve people’s mental and physical health and ultimately prove cost effective to businesses and the state.

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