When Companies Take On Migraine in the Workplace

What happens when an organization decides to address migraine and the need for accommodations directly?

How rare is it to find a workplace that understands, pays attention to, and assists employees with migraine as much as possible? It would feel like a miracle, wouldn’t it?

Migraine and work generally form an uneasy partnership: missed days, lack of clear understanding about migraine by employers and co-workers, and stigma that leads to presenteeism because many workers conceal their condition, triggering a loss of productivity when coming to work in pain or with brain fog.

What would happen if a company addressed this head-on? Would the costs become too prohibitive? 

An article by the American Migraine Foundation provides answers, citing comprehensive work published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. The Swiss-based, global company, Novartis, with over 100,000 employees worldwide, experimented with the idea that the benefits of helping workers with migraine directly, including accommodations, could possibly outweigh the costs. Would it? 


What Novartis Did

The company launched a workplace-wide program in Switzerland to educate all its workers about migraine, resulting in reduced stigma as they gained understanding. They also administered the Migraine Disability Assessment Test (MIDAS) so they could learn about the actual severity of the problem. It turned out to be a quarter of their workforce. These two actions addressed data that show that, according to The Association of Migraine Disorders, 34% of individuals with migraine face difficulties or discrimination at work and 50% go undiagnosed. 

Then Novartis helped workers access treatments, which included visits to headache specialists, medication and integrative approaches like yoga, exercise and mindfulness. The results?

According to MIDAS scores, workers with migraine experienced a 64% reduction in the impact of their condition after nine months, finally averaging a 10.8% gain in workdays over the year-long study, as well as discernible boosts in workplace productivity. After a year, they reaped a 490% return on investment. In other words, it was much cheaper to pay to address the issue than it was to ignore it. Employees noted that these measures also had a positive impact on their quality of life outside work.

Impressive. And it belied commonplace assumptions that leads to misperception by both workers with migraine and employers. 

What An Employee With Migraine Can Do

Most of us aren’t lucky enough to work at such a forward-looking place. However, The Migraine Trust provides ideas that can help every worker:

  • Tell your boss. Managers can’t help if they neither understand migraine nor know your own personal health issues. The American Migraine Foundation has partnered with the Global Patient Advocacy Program to help organizations be more accommodating. 
  • Know your workplace policies. Familiarize yourself with sick leave policies so you understand what support is available to you. 
  • Reduce stress at work. Lights, noise, computer screens and smells can trigger an attack. The migraine brain often needs regularity, meaning consistency in things like breaks and lunch schedules, and opportunities to stay well-hydrated. That consistency applies to sleep and exercise schedules away from work as well. Wellness programs and flexibility based on one’s particular job requirements can help prevent or mitigate migraine attacks. Migraine Again offers numerous ideas about accommodations.
  • Become informed about disability. The mission of the Migraine World Summit is to reduce the global burden of migraine. It features articles like Understanding Your Workplace Rights and includes interviews with experts on important topics. It also provides links to organizations like the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and to resources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook that explains aspects of various kinds of work.
  • Be your own best advocate. As you learn about your workplace policies and help educate those around you, keep a paper trail so that actions, positive or negative, remain clear. And see a headache specialist: get diagnosed and determine the best strategy for you.


Work Smart

That best workplace strategy varies depending on your symptoms. However, it’s always the one that enables you to find productive, interesting and challenging work that leads to personal and professional growth. It means possibly even eliminating careers that can’t make that happen. An individual with vestibular migraine and heightened light sensitivity just can’t be a house painter, which requires working outdoors in sunlight and on high ladders. A person who needs flexible work hours shouldn’t seek the type of work that makes that impossible. Employers should accommodate people with disabilities; those accommodations always need to be reasonable in relation to the nature of the job. 

The Employer’s Role

The Novartis lesson is important: reasonable accommodations aren’t impossible, expensive or unproductive. Data from the experiment show just the opposite. When employees with migraine are happier and less symptomatic at work and outside it, they’re more productive, and everyone benefits. Profit-making companies will increase their profits and may retain a highly skilled, knowledgeable employee, just as non-profits will become more adept at meeting their missions. 

The lesson: take care of your employees and they will take care of you.


Bruce Shaw has been a lifelong educator in the independent school K-12 world in the U.S., working as a teacher, administrator, consultant and as head of two schools. He deals with migraine as do family members; he is grateful to be able to give back as a volunteer to this important organization.