Why supporting people living with migraine matters


Migraine can wreak havoc on people’s lives, both personally and professionally. Not only is it underdiagnosed and undertreated, it is highly stigmatized.

As people living with migraine are mainly in their prime working years, it can be a huge challenge for employers. More than 90% of people with migraine literally cannot work or function normally with a migraine; and people with migraine have reported a productivity decrease of as much as 13% compared to a comparison group of people without migraine.

In this piece, Caroline Barth, head of pharma people and organization at Novartis writes about her experience of working to support people living with migraine in the workplace. One of the strategic priorities at Novartis is to unleash the power of people; supporting people with conditions like migraine is linked to that. Although it affects as many as one in seven people, supporting those living with migraine does not have to be costly and can make a real impact.

Hiding in plain sight

The effect migraine has on the workplace – both on wellbeing and productivity – is significant.Research has shown that 60% of employees reported missing almosta full working week due to migraine in the month preceding the study.In addition, over two-thirds of employees say their employers know about their migraine, but only a small proportion receive support.

Employees living with migraine may be hiding in plain sight, minimizing their attacks because they fear criticism, discrimination or demotion. Migraine is an invisible disorder; many employers have little or no idea what their employees may be battling.

To combat this, open communication and an open atmosphere is needed from employers to foster a workplace where employees feel safe to speak out. This type of openness is at the heart of our new culture at Novartis. We believe it helps create a psychologically safe environment which is key to enabling disclosure and meaningful discussion.

Employers have a pivotal role to play in employee health and wellbeing

The health and wellbeing of employees is an important priority and responsibility for any business. Migraine is now the leading cause of disability in those under 50. As such, its impact can be magnified as these are generally years in which productivity peaks, and during which families and careers are forged.

But there are steps that can be taken towards fostering migraine-friendly workplaces. For example, at Novartis we are modeling workplace adjustments such as creating quiet hubs in our offices where employees can rest and recharge their batteries when they are experiencing an attack.  We are moving towards an environment that “gets” migraine through awareness and education of the entire company.

We also know that migraine-specific wellbeing programs can have a real and beneficial effect. We initiated the Migraine Care Program to provide an independent, complimentary service for all Swiss-based Novartis employees, and their immediate family members, living with migraine to improve their quality of life.

Specifically, the Migraine Care Program supports employees with migraine by providing access to education, advice and appropriate healthcare professionals.  Initial results from this program have been very encouraging: we had over 320 employees and their families engage and receive support and approximately 30% of these were receiving a diagnosis of migraine for the first time.

Since launching the Migraine Care Program, I experienced a very meaningful moment when an employee came to my office and asked if the blinds could be lowered as the glare could trigger their migraine. This moment showed me how being supportive of those living with migraine can help employees to feel accepted and also allow them to ask for small adjustments which can help them be at their best.

Paying attention to employee’s wellbeing

Experiencing a migraine at work can result in reduced performance with employees not being able to fully function in their role despite being at work; this is often termed presenteeism. Presenteeism is known to be a bigger issue than absenteeism for employers.

The equivalent of 43 million workdays are lost to presenteeism due to migraine in the UK alone, at a cost of £4.4 billion. A study in the US of one large financial services corporation with over 80,000 employees estimated the costs stemming from migraine-related reduced on-the-job productivity to total $24.4 million within the corporation alone. Increased awareness of the burden of migraine may contribute to reducing the stigma.

Furthermore, workplace accommodations can mean that people experiencing a migraine do not have to push on through, they can take time out and return when they are at their best. In fact, workplace adjustments could even reduce the number of migraine attacks experienced by allowing employees to avoid triggers.

The workplace is an ideal place to identify, support, and provide care for people living with migraine. Businesses need to recognize the importance of developing programs that could effectively reduce presenteeism due to migraine.

Paying attention to your employees’ wellbeing may seem like a big undertaking, especially for employers with a large workforce, but improving working conditions can boost diversity and productivity.

At the end of the day it’s a two-way partnership – a caring and compassionate working environment for employees with conditions like migraine fosters the highest levels of creativity and productivity. Ultimately, a workplace that is good for people living with migraine is good for everybody