MP Resigns due to Chronic Migraine: Is Your Workplace Doing Enough to Help Sufferers?
Conservative MP and Minister for Levelling Up Dehenna Davison resigned last week, citing chronic migraines as the chief reason for her being unable to continue her work1. The 30-year-old MP for Bishop Auckland’s sudden and surprising resignation has raised concerns over how migraines are handled in the UK, the extent of their effects and how businesses can better accommodate those who suffer from them. In this article, we take a look at the scale of the issue, and offer advice on how you can make your business a better one for those struck with this debilitating ailment.
As reported by the BBC, Conservative MP Dehenna Davison resigned last week, citing “chronic migraines” that have made it “impossible” to do her job2. In a letter to the prime minister, she said people deserved “a minister who can give the job the energy it needs”. The news has come as quite a shock as the 30-year-old was considered something of a rising star for the party, and, in the wake of her resignation, it’s now timelier than ever to assess the provisions that businesses make for those who experience migraines. First of all, what exactly are they?
What is Migraine?
Migraine can broadly be classed as a disabling neurological disorder that can have a wide range of symptoms, but it usually involves a headache localised on one side of the head that induces a throbbing or pulsing pain. The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies several distinct types3:
- Migraine with Aura
- Migraine without Aura
- Migraine Aura without Headache
An ‘aura’ in this context refers to the visual disturbances which occur during migraine, such as coloured spots, blind spots and flashing lights in front of the eyes. Migraine attacks usually last between four and 72 hours, and can be described as ‘episodic’ in that they occur intermittently between one or fourteen days a month, or, as in the case of Ms Davison, chronic if symptoms occur on 15 or more days per month.
What are the Causes of Migraine?
The WHO suggests that migraine is caused by the activation of a mechanism deep within the brain that releases pain-inducing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head, although the exact reasons for this mechanism are still relatively unexplored. They also state that it can be a lifelong condition, and may be partially inherited.
There are, however, a number of known instigating factors. Aside from simple stress as well as environmental difficulties such as bright sunlight, flickering lights and air quality, the following triggers have been known to cause migraine in a number of people:
- Physical Stress – Dehydration, sleep loss or hormonal changes
- Certain smells and odours
- Certain foods and drinks, including:
- Tyramine-heavy foods – aged cheeses (like Stilton), smoked fish and Chianti wine
- Alcohol – especially red wine
- Fruits or juices such as citrus fruits, dried fruits, bananas, raspberries, red plums, papayas, passion fruit, figs, dates, and avocados
- Nut-based products
- Soy products
- Onions, pea pods, beans, corn
- Bread and baked goods with yeast
- Skipping meals
However, despite this exhaustive list, it’s important to bear in mind that different people will respond to any one or combination of factors in their own way – what constitutes a trigger for one person may not for another, and vice versa.
How Many People in the UK Suffer from Migraines?
Migraines are a widespread issue across the country: The Migraine Trust’s ‘State of the Migraine Nation’ report estimated that around 10 million adults in the UK are affected, a staggering 15-23% of the adult population4. According to their study, it is the third most common health condition in the world, occurring more frequently than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined. It affects women more than men, by a factor of almost 2:1, due to hormonal factors.
The social and economic costs of migraines is enormous: up to 25 million working or school days are lost each year in the UK alone. Yet many of those who suffer do not receive effective care, with only half of those identified with migraine having seen a doctor about it according to the WHO.
The Journal of Headache and Pain put it rather scathingly back in 2018: “Migraine is first cause of disability in the under 50s: will health politicians now take notice?” Their study found that treatment of migraine and the accommodation of migraine sufferers was a woefully neglected area5.
Migraine in the Workplace
The situation for those in the world of work is similarly bleak, with over 50% of those with chronic migraine feeling unsupported by their employers6. Research has also shown that:
- 25% of those surveyed had to change careers because of their migraines and/or headaches
- 16% lost their job because of migraines and/or headaches
- An astonishing 97% of respondents worked while in pain caused by headache
- 54% suffer financially due to their migraines
- Chronic sufferers lose 16.8 days of work per year due to headache-related conditions
- The impact of migraine and headaches on work is often unseen, underestimated and misunderstood by employers and can be underplayed by sufferers to hold on to jobs.
Migraine and Work: Rights and Responsibilities
Studies have revealed that migraine ranks as the second most common cause for extended absences from non-manual employment. This research also suggests that workplace discrimination against individuals suffering from migraines could be prevalent.
However, it is essential to note that under the Equality Act of 2010, such discrimination may even constitute an offense on the part of employers: Migraine, under this legislation, may be categorized as a disability depending on the frequency, severity, and impact of the attacks – whether or not it is deemed ‘chronic’, as with Dehenna Davison.
Furthermore, the Equality Act imposes specific responsibilities on employers to make reasonable adjustments that would enable individuals with chronic migraines to maintain their employment. For starters, employers should look at the specific triggers and make small adaptations that make a big difference. For instance, for those who find themselves experiencing migraines due to bright lights or screen glare, it’s possible to install anti-glare screens for computer monitors and review the lighting conditions of the workplace. For others, regular breaks throughout the workday instead of a single extended lunch break might be a better option, depending on their individual trigger.
It’s vital to bear in mind that while occasional migraines can still disrupt work significantly, long-suffering individuals may undergo a substantial and lasting impact to their work if not properly supported by their managers and employers.
How Can Employers Help Employees with Migraines?
With these obligations in mind, it is wise to consider what adjustments employers can make to adapt to staff who suffer from this draining condition. Prevention is better than cure, so first let’s look at the pro-active steps you can make to improve your workplace.
1. Assess the Trigger Factors
As previously mentioned, the best way to avoid migraines for those employees who suffer from them is to remove or adjust those triggers which seem to cause their attacks. For example, someone who gets attacks due to bad air quality might be better situated next to a window, whereas someone averse to harsh sunlight may be better positioned away from them. Find out what works best for your workforce, rather than having them suffer in silence.
2. Flexible Work Hours
Migraine attacks can strike at any time, often causing severe discomfort and impairment. Offering flexible work hours or the option to adjust schedules can be immensely helpful to employees who suffer from migraines. Allowing them to shift their hours or work remotely during a bout can make a world of difference in their ability to continue being productive.
3. Create a Migraine-Friendly Workspace
Small adjustments to the physical workspace can make it more accommodating for migraine sufferers. Little changes to factors like lighting, noise levels and ergonomics can have a surprisingly big effect. Implement measures such as adjustable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, or provide a quiet, dimly lit room where possible to allow employees to rest during a migraine attack.
4. Encourage Regular Breaks
Frequent breaks can help employees manage their migraines better. Allow employees to take short breaks to rest their eyes, stretch, or practice relaxation techniques. Encourage a culture of taking breathers as and when needed to prevent overexertion and reduce overall stress levels (which can trigger migraines in the first place).
5. Develop Clear Policies
Having a clear sickness policy that includes support for migraines in place can provide guidelines for both employees and managers. Outline the steps an employee should take if they experience a migraine at work and the support the company offers. Make sure managers are trained to handle migraine-related requests and know the legal requirements under the Equality Act, if applicable.
Aside from those pro-active measures, when an employee does suffer from an attack, it’s pertinent to respond swiftly and effectively. Asking them to ‘get over it’ or ignoring it will make them feel as though they have to endure it and continue with their work as normal, and is likely to exacerbate the problem, making it worse both for the individual and the wider workforce as a whole. Alternatively, it should be addressed in the following ways without delay:
1. Have Ready Medication Available
In some certain sets of circumstances, off-the-counter medication may be sufficient to belay a bout of migraine, or at least ease it for a while. By having a ready supply of medication, you are at least able to offer your employees one alternative to suffering alone. Moreover, it is a strong indicator of your support towards your workforce, and your employees will appreciate your concern as a result.
2. Allow the Employee to Leave – Safely
Employees undergoing a migraine attack of sufficient severity may simply be unable to work, and that’s a fact that employers must simply acknowledge in order to deal with it properly. In many cases, they may well be unable to drive, too. Where possible, try and arrange alternative travel for them to proceed safely home, whether in the form of a taxi, train or a lift from a colleague.
3. Reallocate the Workload
If a staff member is incapacitated due to a migraine attack, it’s expedient to rearrange the current workflow to accommodate them. Ideally, you should have plans in place if you know you have a migraine sufferer: people who can slot in to their role for the time being should an incident occur. Not only will this save you working time in the long-run, but it will also mean that for that individual, they do not have to worry about their tasks remaining unfulfilled.
4. Follow-Up with Staff
After the situation has been dealt with, it’s advisable to then touch base with the employee to assess their ability to continue with their work, or, if necessary, whether or not they require some time off. Again, such an approach belies a commitment to employee wellbeing that they will doubtlessly appreciate.
Supporting employees who suffer from migraines not only improves their wellbeing but also benefits the workplace as a whole. By creating a more migraine-friendly environment, employers can boost morale, reduce absenteeism and retain valuable talent. Remember that each employee’s experience with migraines is unique to them, so maintaining open communication and a willingness to adapt is key to success. A compassionate and accommodating workplace benefits everyone and fosters an environment where all are given the tools to succeed.
For further information or advice on how your workplace might implement some of these changes, or for expert guidance when it comes to chronic illness, why not get in touch with our dedicated team of experienced HR professionals on 01455 444 222 or email [email protected].
1. Adu, A. (18th September 2023). Dehenna Davison Resigns as Minister, Citing Struggle with Chronic Migraine. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/sep/18/dehenna-davison-resigns-as-uk-minister-citing-struggle-with-chronic-migraine
2. BBC News. (18th September 2023). Chronic Migraines Have Forced Me to Quit, says Dehenna Davison. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-66844580
3. World Health Organisation. (2016). Headache Disorders. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders
4. The Migraine Trust. (2020). The State of the Migraine Nation: Who is Living with Migraine in the UK? Rapid Research Review. https://migrainetrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/State-of-the-Migraine-Nation-population-rapid-review.pdf
5. Steiner, T., Stovner, L., Vos, T., Jensen, R., Katsarava, Z. (2018) Migraine is the First Cause of Disability in the Under 50s: Will Health Politicians Now Take Notice?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5821623/
6. National Migraine Centre. (2022). Migraine at Work.https://www.nationalmigrainecentre.org.uk/understanding-migraine/factsheets-and-resources/migraine-at-work/
James is our resident wordsmith and has many years of experience in writing about a huge variety of topics from HR to Occupational Health and beyond. He has been published in numerous magazines and news outlets, and especially enjoys researching and analysing the current trends in the modern business world.