An expert on migraine in the workplace, Dr. Begasse de Dhaem explains why migraine is such a significant issue and how employers can help.
Migraine is a devastating reality for more than a billion people around the world, resulting not just in painful attacks but also in a disruption of one’s daily life. Olivia Begasse de Dhaem, MD, a board-certified neurologist and headache specialist at Stamford Health, is focused on finding the best treatment for her patients so they can reach their full potential, both personally and professionally. “The ultimate goal is not just to reduce the number of headache days and reduce the severity,” she says, “but we also need to help empower people to actually live the lives that they want.”
As a clinician on the International Headache Society’s Global Patient Advocacy Coalition (IHS-GPAC) Executive Committee, Dr. Begasse de Dhaem is particularly committed to making workplaces more accessible to those living with migraine. “It pains me to see such hardworking people not achieving their dream because the system is failing at supporting them,” she says. In her recent article for the Harvard Business Review, she points to three migraine-related evidence-based ways to increase workplace productivity: education programs, migraine management programs and a migraine-friendly work environment.
We sat down with Dr. Begasse de Dhaem to learn more about migraine in the workplace and how employers can help.
The problem of migraine in the workplace
In her article, Dr. Begasse de Dhaem highlights the extent to which migraine affects workplaces and employees. “In addition, a recent study1 at Fujitsu showed that the productivity of one in five employees was impaired by migraine,” she says, “which led to an estimated annual cost for the company of $350 million for 150,000 employees. And the prevalence of migraine is not higher at Fujitsu compared to other companies.”
There is also a significant stigma surrounding migraine. “According to a survey of more than 200,000 US workers, only 22% thought that migraine was a condition serious enough to justify being absent from work,” says Dr. Begasse de Dhaem. Many people have negative connotations and misunderstand how disabling migraine and its associated symptoms can be.
She also points out how people with migraine may still attend work, but due to their symptoms, they are not able to be as productive as usual—a concept called presenteeism. Up to 89% of decreased productivity related to migraine is due to presenteeism.
Solutions for employers and employees
Employers have the power to help people with migraine and to create a more positive, accepting workplace environment. Practical steps like providing education through webinars, newsletters and online materials can make a significant impact and increase workplace productivity by 29–36%.
Some people may not realize that their symptoms could add up to a migraine diagnosis, and some people may not know that there are treatments available that can help them. By bringing awareness of migraine symptoms and treatments to employers and employees, a program can encourage people who have symptoms to talk to their doctor for potential diagnosis and treatment. Some employers may provide options for migraine management and treatment within the workplace, while others may offer a streamlined referral process.
A workplace education program helps to reduce stigma and increase understanding among those who do not have migraine. For example, after the 2020–2021 workplace initiative at Fujitsu in collaboration with IHS-GPAC, the number of employees who understand that “headache is a disease that has an impact on one’s daily life” went from 20% before the program to 72% after completion of the program. About three quarters of employees who participated in the program said at the end of the program that “the way they treat colleagues with headaches is likely to change.”
In turn, this awareness can prompt positive changes in the workplace, such as flexible schedules, stress reduction, a supportive culture and environmental updates like more natural light, fresh air and opportunities for movement.
Why employers should help employees with migraines
Dr. Begasse de Dhaem acknowledges that establishing a workplace wellness initiative and creating a more supportive environment can require time and financial support. But in her research and personal experience, she knows the investment can pay off in terms of increased productivity. The migraine-related productivity loss in the workplace is costly to the employers: it is estimated to cost employers at least $13 billion in the US and €27 billion in the UE annually.
The outcome of an education program is not only improved employee wellness and job satisfaction but also increased productivity (decreased presenteeism) and decreased work absences (decreased absenteeism). For example, Novartis noted a 500% positive return on investment—in terms of increased productivity divided by the total cost of the program—from their migraine in the workplace education and management program. “If you have the power to help and support people with headache disease in the workplace to improve their quality of life and productivity, why would you not?” asks Dr. Begasse de Dhaem.
Hope for the future of workplace migraines & headache disorders
Through her work with IHS-GPAC, Dr. Begasse de Dhaem has hope for the future. IHS-GPAC raises awareness and knowledge about migraine and other headache disorders in the workplace among employers. It offers a module-based digital migraine education program for all employees. Based on the company’s needs and interests, IHS-GPAC can also provide services such as a consultation with a headache expert.
As a global coalition, IHS-GPAC supports local associations that hold the common goal of improving conditions for people with migraine in the workplace. “Part of what makes GPAC so special,” says Dr. Begasse de Dhaem, “is that it’s a global collaboration between patients, advocates and doctors. It really wants to promote headache advocacy in all regions of the world.”
Her hope, and that of IHS-GPAC, is to create a snowball effect. As more companies participate in the Workplace Initiative and receive an IHS-GPAC seal of approval, the group will increase awareness of the importance and benefits of migraine management programs in the workplace. “As a result, I hope more companies will join the effort,” she says. Dr. Begasse de Dhaem holds this vision for the future: a supportive and optimal work environment for people with headache disorders as standard practice.
- Sakai, F., Igarishi, H., Dodick, D. W. Correct Information and Treatments of Headache. Fujitsu Health Management Office, October 2020.