If you suffer from back or neck pain, it can be difficult to work a full day. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might offer you some workplace protections by requiring your employer to provide reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job.
This article will discuss back and neck pain as a disability, your protections under the ADA, and some reasonable accommodations that can allow you to continue to work without pain.
Minor and temporary conditions don't count as disabilities. If, for example, you pull a muscle in your back but feel fine after icing the injury and taking anti-inflammatory medications for a few days, you don't have a disability under the ADA.
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. Many chronic back and neck injuries and conditions will qualify as disabilities because they significantly affect daily tasks like:
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.
(Learn more about when back and neck pain are disabilities under the ADA.)
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 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.
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 accommodation.
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:
Your employer must keep records relating to your disability confidential. Learn more about your right to privacy under the ADA.
Your employer doesn't have to provide exactly the accommodation you request but must 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:
As long as these changes allow you to work without pain, they're effective 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.
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:
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:
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:
Other workplace accommodations can be more general in nature and help address the overall strain of working. The goal of all workplace accommodations should be to keep you working productively without pain.
Schedule modifications. Sometimes continuing to work productively with chronic neck or back pain might require modifying your schedule. You might need to:
Ergonomic workplace modifications. If you must sit at a desk or stand all day, your employer can bring in an ergonomics consultant to make your workspace more comfortable. Ergonomic changes to reduce neck and back strain could include:
You can find more accommodation ideas on the website of the Job Accommodation Network.
If you suffer from a disability like chronic back pain or neck pain, you have the right to reasonable accommodation 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—so 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 January 25, 2023
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