Mental & Behavioral Health

Migraine in the Workplace: Implications on Employee Productivity and Ways to Address it

Greg Okhifun
Associate Editor
Corporate Wellness Magazine

Migraine is more than just a headache; this intense one-sided throbbing headache comes with dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity, visual disturbances, and difficulty thinking and concentrating that can halt whatever activity the sufferer or migraineur is engaged in when it occurs. What’s more, each episode lasts several hours to days, with as many as 15 episodes in a month in chronic sufferers. This is enough to make even your best talent become less productive at work.

Migraine is the third most common disease globally and the most common neurological disorder in the United States, affecting more than 20 percent of Americans at some point in their lives.

The disorder affects one out of every 7 Americans every year and one out of every four households, with peak prevalence between the ages of 25 and 55 - the most productive years of adulthood. This, therefore, has a huge impact on workplace productivity and the economy.

Migraine is the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide: employees with migraine often take more sick days off work or exhibit presenteeism: about 157 million workdays are lost every year to migraine episodes, with 9 out of 10 migraineurs reporting an inability to continue with work on days the attack strikes.

This costs employers and the economy a lot in productivity loss.

In the United States, migraine costs the economy about $14 billion in direct and indirect costs annually. The UK’s Work Foundation, in a recent report, revealed that productivity loss due to migraine costs the UK economy £8.8 billion ($11.5 billion USD) every year, a figure equivalent to 86 million work days lost.

Despite these staggering statistics, people suffering from migraines still face neglect and discrimination in the workplace. This is mainly due to the poor public understanding of the disease.

Therefore, business owners and organizations have a key role to play in improving the health and welfare of workers with migraine.

Preventing Migraine in the Workplace

The first step in curtailing migraine attacks in the workplace is identifying the triggers. The hallmarks of the modern workplace – bright or flickering fluorescent lights, computer screens, poor sleep, noise and loud sounds, frequent traveling, and work-related stress – are major migraine triggers.

Other common migraine triggers include:

  • Alcohol, especially red wine
  • Certain foods such as salty foods, food additives, and aged cheese.
  • Strenuous physical exercise
  • Strong smells from perfumes, smoke, or cleaning agents for instance
  • Changes in daily routine
  • Skipping meals
  • Fasting
  • Medications
  • Environmental changes, such as weather changes
  • Dehydration.

People with migraine have varying triggers and employers should provide support tailored to each individual. Some of the ways organizations can support these workers include:

Change the Working Environment

It will only make sense to change a migraineur’s working environment if he or she has to avoid the migraine triggers. This involves clamping down on such workers’ exposure to LED office lights, noise, loud music, and screen glare in the workplace, and strong smells from colleagues’ perfumes or aftershave.

This involves turning off or changing office fluorescent lights, providing glare protectors for computer screens, and ensuring co-workers are aware of how they can be triggers of another worker’s migraine headaches.

Employers with migraine can also take some steps in reducing the risk of attacks in the workplace. These include:

  • Use noise-canceling headphones in a noisy workplace
  • Request to move your office to a quieter area
  • Take regular breaks at work to go out and get fresh air
  • Don’t skip meals
  • Avoid alcohol and fatty foods
  • Control stress by practicing mindfulness, getting enough sleep or listening to relaxing music.
  • Take your medicines to work or when you travel.
  • Get a heat pack or ice pack to place on your head when the attacks occur.
  • Find a dark, quiet area in your workplace where you can have some quiet time when you feel stressed.

Monitor Employee’s Stress levels

This is where wearable-based wellness initiatives may play a role. As a proactive approach, employers can redesign work schedule to reduce workloads for employees with migraine.

Some wearable devices can be introduced to workplace wellness programs to help workers and employers monitor and help lower a migraineur’s stress level. In addition, supervisors could schedule regular meetings with such employees to monitor the improvement of the condition and keep track of the pattern of the attacks.

One proactive way of reducing stress levels for workers with migraine is creating work flexibility – Workers with the disease should be allowed to take time off work, work from home, or work for a shorter period of time. This not only reduces stress, it gives these workers a sense of relief and belonging, knowing that their employers are willing to make them feel comfortable

Employers also need to understand that the recovery period from an attack can be just as overwhelming as the attack itself. Migraineurs often feel irritable, confused, or weak during this period. Employers should ensure these workers take enough time off to rest after each episode or reduce their workload during this period.

Establish a Workplace Migraine Intervention Program

Workplace migraine intervention programs provide education, support, and treatment for workers with migraine. These programs also monitor these workers’ treatment progress and clinical improvement. They also provide information to workers and their employers about work modifications employees with migraine should receive based on their individual health needs.

The workplace is an ideal place to identify, support, and provide care for people suffering from migraine. With the appropriate work adjustments and creation of migraine intervention programs that provide referrals to neurologists and other healthcare providers who care for migraine sufferers, the severity and frequency of attacks are sure to reduce and the worker can achieve a better quality of life.

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