A recent study by the Economist and Novartis urges businesses to do more to support employees with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and migraine. All three of these conditions are becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace due, in part, to an ageing population. One of the most common is migraine.

Lack of awareness and understanding of this debilitating neurological disease is costing business, time, money and valuable employees.

The cost of migraine

Migraine affects around 14.7% of the global population, which is around 1 in 7 people. Although migraine often first appears during puberty, it is most common in adults aged between 35 and 45. The condition is more common than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined.

The average migraine sufferer needs up to 33 days off work a year to cope with the symptoms. Around 25 million working days are lost each year in the UK to migraine. It is the second most common cause of short-term absence for office-based employees. The annual cost to the NHS is believed to be £150 million and when you factor in presenteeism (being at work when you’re too unwell to be productive) and disability the total cost to the UK economy is an eye-watering £3.42 billion.

Not ‘just a headache’

The biggest mistake organisations make regarding migraine is thinking it’s ‘just’ a bad headache.  It is in fact, a serious medical condition that can have incapacitating neurological side effects. Globally, migraine is ranked as the seventh most disabling disease and the leading cause of disability among neurological disorders.

Three times more women suffer from migraine than men, around 73%. This is thought to be because of the link between hormonal changes and migraine. For most sufferers, episodes can occur one or more times a month and the vast majority of those will have a significant impact on the person’s ability to function. An attack can last between 4-72 hours and can occur at any time. There are a variety of symptoms and any two sufferers may experience them completely differently, but most migraines will cause one or more of the following:

  • Very painful headache
  • Visual disturbances
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light, sound or scent.

Causes and Triggers

Although the root cause of migraine is not yet fully understood, there is a greater appreciation of potential triggers, for example:

  • Stress
  • Low blood sugar
  • Hunger
  • Alcohol
  • Menstruation
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lighting
  • Sound
  • Certain smells
  • Hormonal changes.

Working with migraine

The Economist research found that people suffering from migraine were more likely to take themselves out of the workforce or have concerns about the condition’s impact on their career progression.

Deeply inground misconceptions of the condition lead employers to misunderstand employees with migraine. They are likely to perceive them to be exaggerating symptoms because they are weak, lazy or trying to get out of doing their job. Suffers can be accused of being inconsiderate and unreliable and many experience depression and anxiety alongside the migraine. One study discovered that just 1 in 5 bosses thought that a migraine attack was a valid reason for absence.

All of this can result in employees quitting work or declining advancement opportunities due to concerns that their condition will have too great an impact. This is bad news for organisations who risk losing loyal, experienced employees for the sake of a little forethought.

Accommodating Employees with Migraine

An organisation with a proactive approach to health and wellbeing can forestall employees leaving because of this neurological condition with some relatively minor, and often cost-free adaptations.

  1. Communication – With most health and wellbeing issues, communication is key. Migraine has no visible symptoms, so it can often be a hidden condition. Encourage employees to be open and honest about their experience of migraine. Knowing how many of your staff suffer from the condition will help you to prepare a proportional and appropriate action plan to support them.
  2. Flexibility – Flexible and remote working options allow an employee to work around a migraine in a way that works for them and you.
  3. Noise levels – Noise can be a trigger, so consider noise levels in the office. Offer the opportunity to sit in a quieter, calmer area. If this isn’t an option noise-cancelling headsets or sound-absorbing panels can be used.
  4. Lighting – Bright lighting, especially fluorescent lights, flashing lights and computer screens, can all trigger an episode. Add fluorescent filters to existing bulbs for a more natural light, fit anti-glare computer screens or install software that offers colour-tinting options. In some cases, the employee can wear sunglasses to reduce light and glare.
  5. Support – Provide a space where employees can go and rest in a quiet, dark area if they’re experiencing an episode while at work.  Also consider arranging transport home, driving with a migraine can be difficult or dangerous.
  6. Fragrance – If your employee’s condition is triggered by smells, consider reducing them where possible. Ask staff to refrain from wearing strong fragrances and ensure ventilation systems are working.  
  7. Stress – Stress is a significant migraine trigger. Good management communication and a well implemented health and wellbeing plan will go a long way to keeping stress levels manageable in the workplace.


When considering the process of finding, recruiting and training individuals, keeping existing employees is far more cost effect than bringing in new staff. Our ageing population and workforce mean that neurological conditions, such as migraine, are going to become more, not less common. While medical treatments continue to improve, so does our understanding of how to prevent and manage such conditions in the workplace.  Giving migraine the respect and consideration it deserves as a debilitating and life-impacting condition, will result in a morale and productivity boost that more than covers any costs.