Why the Rise of Workleisure Benefits the Chronic Pain Community

Man working from bed.

Alexander Spatari

Key Takeaways

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers have been dressing more casually if they work from home.
  • Wearing less restrictive clothing over areas where people experience chronic pain can be more comfortable and help manage pain.
  • Flexible dress codes can allow people with chronic pain to dress in a way that better accommodates their condition.

As Katherine Lucas McKay goes back to in-person work, she is hoping for one major company shift: the acceptance of workleisure.

McKay, while juggling her job, also has to find ways to manage her chronic pain from fibromyalgia and the lingering effects of thyroid cancer. Casual, comfortable clothing and flexible dress codes can help.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, depression, environmental sensitivities, and digestive symptoms.

“I will definitely be in a more dressed down mode for the foreseeable future, like fewer blouses and more comfortable understated black soft T-shirts,” McKay, who works as a research program manager at a Washington, D.C. policy institute, tells Verywell. “The freedom that it adds for people who benefit a lot from having the opportunity to be more dressed down is great.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have embraced a more comfortable look while working from home. For some people who live with chronic pain, this shift has come as a relief, as casual clothing can help people cope with physical pain. But not all companies are shifting permanently. Some may expect dress codes to return to business as usual. 

Dressing for Comfort When You Have Chronic Pain

Even though dress codes are likely not going out the window, there are still modifications people can make to their wardrobe.

Someone with endometriosis or Crohn’s disease may, for example, feel more comfortable wearing pants that aren’t tight around their waist due to inflammation associated with their conditions.

“When we’re in pain, our brains zeroes in on that area and becomes a focus of our attention,” Shamin Ladhani, PsyD, pain psychologist, tells Verywell. “Anything that’s in that area that’s obstructing it, whatever we can control, we want to control it.”

This includes wearing less restrictive clothing in an area where the pain is concentrated. While many people with chronic pain report feeling better wearing certain types of clothing, the research between clothing and conditions which cause chronic pain is still sparse.

Still, some data exists. In 2019, researchers at Boston University found that wearing tight pants is associated with an increased risk of vulvodynia, which is characterized by chronic pain in the vulva.

Ladhani encourages people with chronic pain to also experiment with different types of clothing to help them stay comfortable but still look professional.

“What people have to do when they’re working in a corporate setting is to think about how they can layer things in a way that they can take on and off in a way that continues to stay professional,” she says.

Teona Studemire is a content creator and writer who lives with fibromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and myalgic encephalomyelitis. They like to layer—as Ladhani suggests—when they have an interview that requires business attire.

“It’s easier for me to get dressed because a simple jacket, different shoes, or jewelry can [elevate] regular comfortable clothes to something that looks more dressed up without me having to struggle to get in and out of them or dealing with the feeling of fabric irritating my fibromyalgia,” they say.

If a patient has chronic pain in their feet and still wants to wear heels in an office, Ladhani talks to them about finding a solution that works for them, without having to sacrifice an important part of their look.

“We talk about, ‘If you can’t wear them anymore while commuting, can you still wear them in a more of a seated position? Is that more comfortable for you?’” Ladhani says.

Adaptive Clothing Can Help, Too

In addition to casual clothing, people with chronic pain may benefit from adaptive clothing. Adaptive clothing, such as having pants that close with magnets or a dress with velcro in lieu of a traditional zipper, is designed to help people with different physical needs get in and out of clothes more easily.

Ladhani explains that if adaptive clothing brands are too expensive for you, you could look more closely into the type of materials the clothes you wear are constructed of.

“There are a lot of different fabrics that are still inexpensive, like cotton fabrics, or soft bamboo fabrics, or linens…that feel better on the skin,” she says.

Beyond just having more comfortable material, McBee-Black stresses that there should be a wider range of fashionable adaptive clothing options for people to choose from.

“If your clothing options are so limited, you don’t have that freedom of flexibility,” she says.

What This Means For You

If you live with chronic pain, you may find that changing up your wardrobe can help you feel more comfortable. You can talk to a pain psychologist or a stylist if you need help dressing comfortably in the workplace but don't know where to start.

The Role Clothes Can Play in the Workplace

While more casual clothing is becoming more acceptable to wear to work in some industries, the prior rejection of athleisure and comfortable clothing has been a barrier to entry to work, according to a 2018 paper by researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbus.

“I would love for us to get to the point where we don’t have to draw attention to the fact that there’s a need for clothing for people with disabilities, there is just access for anybody that wants it,” Kerri McBee-Black, PhD, one of the paper’s authors, tells Verywell.

McKay has found herself wondering why clothing items like wide-legged yoga pants were not acceptable before COVID-19, when they may be helpful for some chronically ill and disabled people.

“I have had my coworkers be like ‘Hey, look at these pants that I got from Athleta’ or whatever that serves all of my needs,” McKay says. “It can get frustrating with disability stuff when people who don’t experience any of that are suddenly excited about adaptability things that you have relied on or wished for years.”

Now that more people are embracing comfortable, casual clothes, Studemire finds that they are less self-conscious about their own fashion choices.

“Other people are dressing for comfort, so I’m not forced into feeling like I’ve ‘let myself go’ so to speak just because I’m not always up for dressing up,” Studemire says.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Klann AM, Rosenberg J, Wang T, Parker SE, Harlow BL. Exploring hygienic behaviors and vulvodyniaJ Low Genit Tract Dis. 2019;23(3):220-225. doi:10.1097/lgt.0000000000000477

  2. McBee-Black K, Ha-Brookshire J. Exploring clothing as a barrier to workplace participation faced by people living with disabilitiesSocieties. 2018;8(1):19. doi:10.3390/soc8010019

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.