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Leaders in pain

The hidden journey and consequences of physical pain alongside leadership

The 2020 buzzword in the world of work seems to be wellbeing. It’s a word that I have an ambivalent relationship with. On the one hand, I celebrate that there may be a focus on what people need to be healthy and successful, on the other hand I wonder, “what does wellbeing actually mean?” and “do people even realise it is what they need?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am akin to the many definitions of wellbeing. But who has ever gone to Google and searched for their nearest wellbeing provider, or ordered a bottle of wellbeing?

I don’t want to sound trite — but my many years in Health Psychology and Coaching have revealed to me that the concept of ‘wellbeing’ is not obvious to people even when they desperately lack it.

Physical Pain — the hidden epidemic

One area of need where this is most striking is in the area of Chronic Pain.

It may surprise you to hear that the British Pain Society estimates that two-fifths / 43% of adults in the UK (about 28 million ) are experiencing chronic pain!

Read that again, are experiencing now… not have experienced in the past.

Chronic pain is defined as any pain that persists for 3 months or longer.

When I first opened my private pain service, alongside my NHS clinical role, in 2014 I was amazed by how many of my clients were leaders or senior professionals. Business CEOs, barristers, sales directors, politicians, other clinicians… well, the list is long.

Many of my clients had waited a very long time before seeking help — often arriving at a point where they feared things could not go on any further without help. A tipping point.

The causes of chronic pain I worked with were legion, but included:

  • Injuries

  • Poor sleep (caused by pain or causing pain)

  • Stress (work, divorce, family, financial etc…)

  • Illness (viruses, previous terminal illness, fibromyalgia)

  • Previous trauma (PTSD, abusive partners)

  • Lifestyle

  • and more…

I witnessed a constant trail of successful people who were experiencing a great barrier to their success in the form of their body not coping or recovering well

No rulebook for ‘Living with pain’

What is unusual about pain is that our society really doesn’t have a narrative for when it doesn’t go away. We are accustomed to taking a pill, or seeing our GP or seeing a consultant — but eventually, it is cured. When it isn’t cured, we can feel like we are failing or that the system failed us.

Pain should be cured, shouldn’t it?

We fail to see that almost half of adults experience this, right now, and so pain is actually very common.

What is missing in our stories about pain, is how to live and cope alongside it. How to balance work and life, how to pace, how to build a life where success can thrive alongside an attunement to your body, and the signals that you need to change it up.

We do have narratives about health, that we all know too well:

Fight cancer. Be brave. Never give up. Beat it. Just do it. Don’t give in to it.

None of these are actually helpful, when your body needs you to nurture it and to design a way of functioning that invites rehabilitation alongside new ways of succeeding.

Going into battle against yourself, both sides lose.

The consequences

I have seen, and heard, many leaders talk about how they hide or minimise these experiences.

They regularly experience fatigue, shame, anger, doubt, fear about the future — but keep it all to themselves. Fighting to go on — sometimes managing this, but always at a cost. Most often, slowly losing.

How many times have you flippantly referred to your backache, headache, sore knee, lack of sleep etc… almost like a mantra that people can’t even hear as there is not a correct response in society that prompts you to look after yourself.

Many leaders rely on medication, alcohol etc to tackle the pain. Many see their roles, relationships and personal confidence suffer.

Most often, I hear that they feel alone in their world of pain.

Crazy really, as many of their peers are likely hiding the same.

Succeeding with pain

Living with pain is achievable.

It may not mean that the pain goes away, but the suffering goes away. It requires a new rulebook for living, feeling and turning up for yourself.

The commonly understood routes to getting to the other side (exercise, medication, pushing on, working when you can) really don’t work without a deeper understanding and actually result in more inflammation and less fitness over time.

To shake the tree, I always start by saying to my client…

“You keep asking, where is the cure?”. “That hasn’t worked for you. You need to be asking, how do I live today and tomorrow — how do I succeed?”

When you can answer that, and live it, the cure seems less necessary — and also has the best chance of arriving. Getting the answer often needs specialist help, for those who are most struggling.

I’ve seen amazing outcomes in the most challenging of situations.

Over the years, my service focused more and more on those successful in work who were hampered by these challenges. A group who I rarely saw in NHS clinics and seemed to be struggling out in the wilderness.

If this is you, this article is for you.


Ask how you will succeed today

Seek the answer with an open mind

(Written by Dr Craig Newman, UXC CEO).



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