How employers can better support workers suffering from migraines

Workplace accommodations and new targeted medications promise to transform the experience of migraine sufferers after decades of neglect, a speaker told participants at a recent event.

Dr. Christine Lay, head of the neurology division at Women’s College Hospital, told an audience at Benefits Canada’s Chronic Disease at Work conference that the condition has largely flown under the radar, despite taking an alarming toll on workforce productivity.

According to World Health Organization statistics presented by Lay, migraine trails only anemia and hearing loss as the third most prevalent ailment worldwide, while it places second in the list of leading causes of workplace absenteeism.

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“It’s incredibly common and incredibly disabling, but nobody really knows about it. Multiple sclerosis has millions in funding going towards creating new drugs and reducing its impact,” said Lay.

“We don’t have enough money, relative to the burden of migraine, that is needed for funding, and that’s a huge problem,” she added.

Canada is home to an estimated four million migraine sufferers, according to Lay, who explained that a combination of ignorance and misconception stand in the way of proper diagnosis and treatment for most of them.

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For example, she said many doctors don’t recognize cases unless a patient reports the “aura” of visual disruption associated with the condition, despite evidence that only around 15 per cent of migraine sufferers actually experience it. In addition, the disease carries a stigma among some who believe people exaggerate its effects, according to Lay.

“It’s not just a headache,” she said, noting that a typical attack lasts between four and 72 hours, resulting in moderate disability in about a third of sufferers.

However, Lay sees promise in recent developments in her field, which include the development of the first drug designed specifically to prevent migraines. Until now, the medication options available were originally for other purposes, including blood pressure control or seizure prevention, she said.

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Outside of an attack, Lay said the extreme sensitivity of migraine sufferers to sights and sounds actually makes them particularly effective workers.

“They have attention to detail, and they will answer the phone after one or two rings because they can’t stand to have it ring three, four or five times,” she said.

In addition, Lay suggested a number of simple workplace accommodations could lower the prevalence of attacks by helping migraine sufferers manage common triggers, such as caffeine use, stress, missed meals and poor sleep.

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Flexible hours, a scent-free workplace and work-from-home policies can all improve absenteeism rates for migraine sufferers, which are currently five times higher than the average, she said.

Wellness is also a big focus of Lay’s education sessions for employees and employers. During her presentation, she highlighted one company’s success with a quiet room that allows workers to practise a few minutes of meditation or take a break.

“It’s just a great tool for anyone, anywhere, in any kind of work or non-work environment, but with migraine, it’s very important,” she said. “If we can help accommodate migraineurs, they are less likely to be triggering migraine attacks and then missing work time.”