More than just a headache…

Efforts to curb rising absence rates have led some employers to trial schemes where workers are not paid for the first three days they are off sick – a policy that could have a devastating effect on people who suffer regular migraines.

An estimated 90,000 people are off work or school every day because of migraine. The condition can be severely debilitating and is much more than ‘just a headache’ – most people also feel sick and are unable to continue with normal daily activities, including work. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), migraine is 19th in its list of causes of years lived with disability (known worldwide as YLDs).1

Estimates put the number of migraine sufferers in the UK anywhere between six and 10 million. It is more common than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined. For this reason, most organisations will have at least one person who gets migraine and many will have a number of sufferers.

Genuine sufferers of migraine often feel as if their condition is not taken seriously in the workplace. A recent study by The Migraine Trust of more than 4,500 migraine sufferers has revealed that more than a third (34.3 per cent) face difficulties or discrimination at work because of their condition.2 In one case, a survey respondent was facing dismissal because of absence due to migraine-related sickness.

Despite the fact that it is a common condition and has such a debilitating affect on the sufferer, many employers know little about migraine and even less about what they can do to help. One reason for this is that migraine is ‘invisible’. People see the sufferer well one day, then missing for a day or two, and then back to work looking perfectly well. Unless work colleagues or employers suffer themselves, they are unlikely to realise that while the sufferer has been away, they are likely to have been feeling sick, exhausted and in severe pain.

Understanding what migraine is and how it affects people is just one of the steps employers can take to help a migraine sufferer minimise the impact on their working life.

The Migraine Trust, the UK’s leading medical research charity for the condition, suggests the following:

– Migraine sufferers often have different triggers – the things that start a migraine. If you understand the triggers of your employees with migraine, you can help to reduce the number of attacks they suffer. Identified triggers include: missing meals, drinking red wine, menstrual cycle or travelling. Certain smells or foods can sometimes trigger attacks as well

– Keep an eye on the stress levels of your employees. Many sufferers suspect that stress causes migraine or is a strong factor that can push them over their ‘migraine threshold’ into an attack

– Ensure working conditions are as ‘migraine-friendly’ as possible. For example, providing drinking water, rest areas, good lighting, reducing glare by positioning computers properly and ensuring employees do not sit at a screen for long periods without a break

– Try to ensure schedules are as ‘migraine-friendly’ as possible. This might include offering flexi-time arrangements
Show consideration to sufferers and support them in getting the right treatment for their migraine. It is known that there is both widespread under-diagnosis and under-treatment of migraine. This will not only help the sufferer directly, but it will also be a very positive signal to all employees.

The work implications of not taking migraine seriously are that performance is compromised by both absence and reduced effectiveness. Understanding employers who know about the condition, its triggers and the impact on sufferers, don’t dismiss it as ‘just a headache’, and are likely to see a positive impact on morale and performance as a result.

Case study

Liz is a migraine sufferer who found starting a new job dramatically increased her number of attacks. She explains: “Within a week of starting a new job, I was getting severe headaches every day, which sometimes led on to a migraine. Obviously, being new to the organisation, I was very worried about taking time off and being labelled as someone who was ‘sickly’. It was only after a few days that I realised the trigger for my attacks was the glare from the VDU screen. The screen was near a window without any blinds and the reflections were triggering my attacks. The simple solution was to move the screen and get a blind fixed.”


1. World Health Organisation,

2. The Migraine Trust,


The Migraine Trust runs a helpline and information service for people with migraine and their families. Log on to or call 020 7436 1336.

If you are a health professional, you might also be interested to know that The Migraine Trust offers a professional diploma in headache and migraine, which is studied by distance learning. Contact The Migraine Trust for further details.

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