Why your boss needs to start taking your migraines seriously, according to experts

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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Migraine sufferers across the UK are not receiving enough support from their employers, a group of charities have warned.

Around one in seven people are thought to suffer from the condition, and it is more common in women than men: in fact, around one in five women are thought to be affected by migraines, compared to just one in 15 men.

Yet despite there being approximately nine million sufferers in the UK alone, charities believe employers do not understand enough about the condition and the debilitating affects it can have on their employees.

Now, during Migraine Awareness Week (3-9 September), the charities are joining together to help improve understanding – and hopefully reduce the estimated 25 million days lost at work and in schools due to the condition every year.

A new study of 2,000 UK adults, performed by the Migraine Trust, Migraine Action and the National Migraine Centre, found that 64% of people believed their employers were not properly informed about the nature of migraines or the affect they could have on employees.

In addition, one in five people believed that health professionals were not fully aware of the impact of migraine on their patients either.

A migraine is described by the NHS as “a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head”. It is often accompanied by symptoms including “nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound”.

There are different types of migraines, described by the NHS as:

  • migraine with aura – where there are specific warning signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
  • migraine without aura – the most common type, where the migraine occurs without the specific warning signs
  • migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache doesn't develop

It is worth noting that people experience migraines in different ways, with some people suffering from them frequently while others go years between experiencing them.

Speaking to the BBC, migraine sufferer Fiona McKenzie, 33 from London, described her experience of the condition as feeling “like someone [is] hitting my brain with an ice pick”, and added that she once experienced 16 “headache days” in a single month.

She also revealed that one employer even threatened to fire her because of her migraine.

“It had a real impact on my work, although I tried hard not to take sick days,” she said.

She added that it was “very hard” when her employer simply told her to “be more resilient”, and said, “It pushed the onus on to me, but it was not something in my control.

“It feels like you're fighting an illness all by yourself… I came home and cried on the sofa because I couldn't magically make myself better.”

While McKenzie has since experienced a better level of support from her employers, her story is likely to strike a chord with many migraine sufferers – previous research from The Migraine Trust has even found that almost one in five people have lost their jobs due to migraines.

Although a migraine can be classified as a disability if it is severe enough to affect sufferer’s work, charities have warned that the current legislation around the condition is unclear, leading employers to be hesitant to act.

Speaking about what more can be done to help sufferers, McKenzie added that employers should offer flexible working hours and more support to staff who are considering seeking treatment or advice.

The NHS advises you to see your GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms, and states that “simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be effective for migraine.”

However you should still make an appointment to see your GP if you have frequent migraines (on more than five days a month), even if they can be controlled with medication, as you could benefit from preventative treatment.

And if you want to learn more about the various treatment options that are available, or get some advice, you can head to the NHS’ page about the condition here.

Images: iStock