0345 094 1429

Migraine and Headaches

29th August 2018

Next week is Migraine Awareness Week, and so could be a timely moment to re-evaluate the support you offer to employees suffering from this potentially debilitating health condition, and how better to help managers trying to offer employee support.

Employee health and wellbeing – why migraines need to be taken more seriously in the workplace

Next week (2-8 September) is Migraine Awareness Week, the annual campaign run by the Migraine Trust and designed to draw attention to migraine, educate the public and reduce stigma about the condition – especially this year in the context of workplace health and wellbeing.

A key focus on the week will be encouraging employers to become more “mindful of migraine” by, among other things:

  • Being more aware of the high numbers of people who get migraine
  • Understanding (and communicating) better that migraine is a complex neurological condition that people may experience differently
  • Making reasonable adjustments when managers become aware that an employee gets migraines (and we’ll come back to this shortly)

So, what’s the problem here?

Frequent cause of short-term absence

The Migraine Trust calculates that there are approximately 190,000 migraine attacks every day in the UK, with three quarters of those suffering migraines experiencing an attack at least one a month, with more than half experiencing severe impairment during an attack.

Migraines are the second most frequently identified cause of short-term absence (47%) for non-manual employees. Absenteeism from migraine alone costs £2.25bn per year in the UK, calculated on the basis of 25 million lost days, it argues.

This by and large tallies with research by the think-tank The Work Foundation in April, which suggested that almost 200,000 attacks happen in the UK every day, with the condition affecting nearly a quarter (23%) of adults.

It also argued that migraines cost the UK economy approximately £8.8bn a year in lost productivity, or the equivalent of 86 million workdays. The condition was also the most common neurological reason for accident and emergency attendance.

What, therefore, should employers be taking away from all this?

Making ‘reasonable’ adjustments

First, the Migraine Trust’s initiative – both the week itself but also the focus on what employers can do – is helpful.

The trust makes it clear that “reasonable” adjustments may not be expensive or difficult to implement. It recommends, for example, introducing flexible working practices and looking at how your organisation’s physical environment – perhaps the lighting, for example – can be adjusted to help prevent the triggering of a migraine.

More widely, the trust makes an important workplace mental health point. It highlights that anxiety and depression can be significantly more common in people with migraine than in “healthy” individuals.

To an extent this is perhaps unsurprising. The direct psychological toll of having to deal with this condition can be compounded by the fear and worry of having to call in sick regularly to a workplace where migraine is not well understood or supported, where it is simply because “you’ve got a headache”.

Role of Employee Assistance Programmes

Resources such as offering access to an EAP can therefore potentially be valuable here, too. This is first as somewhere to go for employees who are affected by migraine, or looking for advice on how to support a friend, partner or colleague who suffers.

But, second, an EAP can be a valuable occupational health resource for managers to get best practice advice and guidance on how to help and support employees in this context.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, highlights: “Migraine attacks can come on quickly and can be debilitating, sometimes taking hours or even days for a ‘hangover’ type feeling to disappear.

“But the fact all of us get headaches from time to time – even though a headache is very different to a migraine – can mean there is a risk they can be easily dismissed or workplaces can be less than sympathetic to someone who, in fact, may need support and help.

“Calendar markers like Migraine Awareness Week can be a valuable way to kickstart discussion and awareness around how better to support people who suffer from migraines and what your organisation can do to adjust.

“But it is also simply about being aware that migraine is a common, and serious, health condition that may need occupational health and organisational support and intervention,” she adds.