Getting a Workplace Accommodation for Back Pain and Neck Pain

Learn whether your back or neck pain is a disability under the ADA and what work accommodations you can get for neck or back pain.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Do you suffer from back pain or neck pain that interferes with your ability to work? If so, you're not alone. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control statistics, almost 30% of American adults report low back pain, and nearly 15% report neck pain.

Chronic neck or back pain can interfere with sleep, make basic work tasks difficult, and get in the way of enjoying everyday life. If you suffer from back or neck pain, it can be difficult to work a full day. Depending on your symptoms and severity, back pain and neck pain can qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And the ADA might offer you some workplace protections by requiring your employer to provide reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job.

If your back or neck pain is considered a disability, you could be entitled to accommodations like:

  • light duty work
  • assistive devices (such as machinery to assist with lifting and moving), or
  • adjustable office equipment (like a sit-stand desk or a tilting work surface).

Is Your Back Pain or Neck Pain a Disability Under the ADA?

Minor and temporary conditions don't count as disabilities under the ADA. If, for example, you pull a muscle in your back but feel fine after icing the injury and taking anti-inflammatory medications for several days, you don't have a disability under the ADA. But if your condition is severe, it can still be covered by the ADA even if it doesn't last long-term. (20 CFR 1630.2.)

You'll qualify as having a disability under the ADA if your back or cervical condition:

  • makes it difficult or painful for you to perform daily activities, or
  • significantly interferes with your ability to do things like sleep, sit, lift, stand, or walk.

Let's look at what legally qualifies as a disability under the ADA.

How the ADA Defines Disabilities

To qualify as disabled under the ADA, you must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities. (42 U.S.C. § 12102). Many chronic back and neck injuries and conditions will qualify as disabilities because they significantly affect daily tasks like:

  • sleeping
  • standing or walking
  • pushing or pulling
  • lifting or carrying
  • bending or stooping, or
  • sitting.

What Is "Substantially Limited?"

You don't have to be utterly unable to perform an activity to be substantially limited. If it's more painful, more difficult, or more time-consuming for you to perform an activity than it is for people in the general population, that counts as a substantial limitation. If your doctor has given you work restrictions for chronic low back pain, such as standing less than two hours a day or frequently needing to change positions from sitting to standing, that also means your back or neck pain counts as a disability under the ADA.

Unlike the Social Security Administration's disability criteria, you don't have to be severely limited in performing the activity to be protected by the ADA.

What Do the EEOC's Guidelines Say?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency that enforces the ADA—set out guidelines for employers to use when assessing whether a life activity is substantially limited. The EEOC says your employer should consider how much your impairment affects your ability to perform an activity as well as how long it takes you to perform an activity or the length of time you can do the activity. For example:

  • Is it more difficult, or does it take more time, for you to perform the activity? If your back pain doesn't prevent you from walking but requires you to walk more slowly and carefully, that probably qualifies as a substantial limitation.
  • Does performing the activity cause you pain? You might be able to lift heavy boxes despite your back pain, for instance, but it might make it extremely painful for you to do so. That's likely a substantial limitation.
  • Can you perform the activity only for a limited amount of time? For instance, if your back pain prevents you from sitting for more than an hour without a break, that might be a substantial limitation.

Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

If you're finding it difficult or painful to do your job because of neck or back pain, you should talk to your employer about getting an accommodation—a change to your workplace or job that will enable you to perform the essential functions of your position despite your disability.

Under the ADA, if you have a disability, you have the right to reasonable accommodations that allow you to do your work, including modifications to:

  • your workplace
  • your workspace
  • your job duties
  • work rules, or
  • your employer's other policies

Your employer must provide accommodation unless it would create an undue hardship—that is, it would impose significant expense or burden on the employer, considering the employer's size, resources, and structure. (42 U.S.C § 12111(10).)

How to Get a Work Accommodation

If you need a reasonable accommodation at work for chronic back or neck pain, you should ask for it. Your supervisor isn't required to guess that you have a problem. If your back pain is making it painful or difficult to sit at your desk all day, walk long distances to meetings and events, or lift boxes, for example, you should tell your manager that you have a disability and need a work accommodation for chronic pain.

You're not legally required to make your request in writing, but it's a good idea to do so. That way, you can make sure you have clearly communicated your needs, and you'll have a record of your request. Once you've requested accommodation, your employer might ask for the following:

  • more information about your condition,
  • documentation of your condition, and
  • details about how it's impacting your ability to do your job.

Your employer must keep records relating to your disability confidential. (Learn more about your right to privacy under the ADA.)

Compromising With Your Employer on Accommodations

The ADA doesn't require your employer to provide the specific accommodation you request, only to take part in a discussion with you to find an accommodation that allows you to do your job. (29 C.F.R. § 1630.9.) Your employer has to engage in a "flexible, interactive process" with you to try to come up with an accommodation that will be effective.

For example, if your back pain is making it difficult to sit at your desk and use your computer, you might request a particular type of orthopedic desk chair that's very expensive. Your employer might instead suggest a series of ergonomic changes to your workstation, such as:

  • raising your screen height
  • adjusting your seating position, and
  • buying you a footrest.

As long as these changes allow you to work without pain, they're effective accommodations.

Common Back or Neck Pain Accommodations

Back and neck pain can present in a variety of ways and cause different limitations. And, of course, the accommodations you need depend on what your job entails. For example, if you do manual labor that involves heavy lifting, carrying, digging, and pulling, you'll need different accommodations than you'd need if you had a desk job or a position that requires lots of driving.

Workplace Accommodations for Your Physical Limitations

You might need accommodations that help with the particular limitations caused by your back pain or neck pain. Here are some examples:

Mobility problems. If walking is painful, you might request accommodations that make it easier to get where you need to go, such as:

  • moving your workspace closer to important areas you need to use, such as the restroom, meeting places, or the copy machine
  • having a parking space close to the entrance of the building where you work, or
  • using assistive devices such as a scooter or a cart to hold supplies and belongings while you walk, if you must be mobile while you work.

Difficulty with reaching, lifting, pulling, and so on. If your job requires you to lift heavy objects or stretch to reach certain items, you might request the following accommodations:

  • getting mechanical help, such as a hydraulic lift to move heavy items
  • having your workspace rearranged so heavier items and those you need to reach for regularly are closer and at the correct height (like placing important files on your desk rather than in a low file drawer), or
  • using a lazy-susan-style desk organizer to make often-used items easier to grab.

Problems sitting or standing. Some workspace changes that can reduce neck pain and back pain if you have to stand or sit all day while working include:

  • using foot risers and ergonomic desks and chairs
  • changes to the placement of your computer screen and keyboard
  • using special equipment (such as an ergonomic mouse or a sit-stand desk), and
  • adding anti-fatigue mats, a stool, or something to lean on if you spend your day standing.

Schedule Accommodations for Neck and Back Pain

Workplace accommodations that change your hours or schedule can help address the overall strain of working. The goal of all workplace accommodations should be to keep you working productively without pain.

Sometimes continuing to work productively with chronic neck or back pain might require modifying your schedule. You might need to:

  • take longer or more frequent breaks (which might mean you need to work a longer day to get your full shift in)
  • rearrange the order of your workday so that long periods of standing are broken up by tasks you can perform sitting down, or vice versa
  • take some time off as an accommodation
  • shorten your shifts, perhaps working only six hours a day instead of eight. This accommodation might be more reasonable for larger employers and those that already offer shift work.
  • work from home or on a hybrid schedule (working part of the time in the office and part of the time from home). Not all jobs can be performed from home, but if yours can, this might be the accommodation you need to keep working without adding to your back or neck pain.

Read more about modifying your schedule or working part-time under the ADA.

Know Your Rights Under the ADA

If you suffer from a disability like chronic back pain or neck pain, you have the right to reasonable accommodations at work. Under the ADA, your employer must work with you to adjust your work environment and duties so that you can continue to do your job—as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship for the company.

Learn what to do if your employer refuses a reasonable request for accommodation.

Updated November 21, 2023

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