Supporting employees who suffer from migraines

A 2018 report by the Work Foundation, Society’s Headache, reported that migraines were the third most common illness in the world, and the highest cause of years lived with disability in people aged 15 to 49.

Within the UK, the Global Burden of Disease study (GBD) 2016 put adult migraine prevalence at 23.3%. Assuming an average of 5.7 days lost per person with a migraine, the report concluded that the cost of migraine-related absenteeism alone stood at almost £4.4 billion. When added to the cost of migraine-related presenteeism, as well and the burden and loss of quality of life that migraine sufferers carry between attacks (eg due to avoiding triggers), the costs to UK business are significant.

What is a migraine?

According to the Migraine Trust, a migraine is “a severe and painful long-term health condition” that can include a throbbing headache; problems with sight; feeling nauseous and vomiting etc.

Attacks can last for anything between 4 hours and 3 days, and symptoms are often experienced up to one day before an attack, as well as a day afterwards. Although migraine sufferers will not experience symptoms between attacks, attacks can still be frequent. The number of attacks will vary between individuals from a couple each year, to two or three per week. Symptoms and the type of migraine will also vary, and even the same individual may experience different symptoms.

Migraines are a complex neurological condition for which there currently is no cure, although there are some treatments that can help prevent or lessen attacks. Certain sufferers might also have specific triggers — these can include stress, not enough sleep and changes to sleep patterns, skipping meals or dehydration, environmental conditions linked to lighting or temperature, lack of exercise or hormonal changes in women.

Is a migraine classed as a disability?

Migraines are not automatically treated as a disability under the Equalities Act 2010, but may still be considered under the Act if they meet certain criteria.

What adaptations are relevant for migraine sufferers?

Clearly, a large proportion of the working population suffer from migraines. However, there is a general consensus that a lack of understanding of migraines — including by employers — is a barrier to improving conditions for those that live with migraines.

If an employee’s migraine is classed as a disability, then an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. However, in many cases, changes that would benefit a migraine sufferer (such as better workplace conditions) are positive actions that will support everybody. Employers also need to be mindful of the requirement under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 to not put employees in a situation that would exacerbate poor health.

As migraines can vary widely between individuals, it is important to speak with any affected employees about the impact migraines have on their ability to work, their triggers, and any measures that might be helpful. This can be drawn up into a personalised plan, along with any other supporting documents. For example, if stress is a trigger, a specific risk assessment for stress might be appropriate.

5 considerations for a migraine-free work environment

  • A good desk set-up
  • Controlling glare, eg by using anti-glare screens, reducing direct glare from windows by using blinds
  • Maintaining lighting to reduce flicker
  • Allowing personalised control of lighting, or use of lighting that mimics daylight as much as possible
  • Ensuring good ventilation and a good, stable temperature

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