31st May 2023

Migraines: the chronic condition crippling 40m Europeans

  • Migraines are estimated to cost Europe €95 billion a year in lost productivity (Photo: Unsplash)
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Intense pain, nausea, difficulty in thinking and vision, or dizziness are some of the symptoms associated to the attacks suffered by more than 40 million adults in Europe. That is, one-in-seven workers.

Their lives are totally compromised. They fear the next attack, which they never know when it is coming, and there is no known cure — although there is prevention and treatment.

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Despite the widespread belief that it is 'just a headache', a migraine is actually a chronic neurological disorder whose attacks can last from four hours to three days, and is the second-leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide.

Migraines are technically a genetic neurological disease, and hit people at working age the hardest, and in addition to a personal cost, there is also an economic toll. Accounting for the direct and indirect costs in terms of lost productivity and absenteeism, the economic price amounts to €95bn each year.

Yet, more than four-out-of-ten workers with migraines feel unsupported in their work environment, and 11 percent have been dismissed because of migraines, revealed a survey conducted by the European Migraine and Headache Alliance (EMHA) in 2018.

"In recent years, public and political opinion has made no progress," EMHA executive director Elena Ruiz de la Torre told EUobserver.

At EU level, there is still no recognition of neurological diseases (which include migraines). Recognition as a chronic condition and disability in EU law would improve the protection and benefit of workers in all member states.

"The EU needs to help raise awareness and remove the stigma that migraines are a pretext for not working, or a simple headache, and also to give them the same recognition as other diseases," she added.

While it is true that the burden of competence for labour and health issues lies primarily with the member states, the European institutions can play a key role. Especially in "establishing common objectives and targets, making laws, providing guidelines, assisting implementation, and setting minimum standards to enhance good practice", notes a study from the think tank Work Foundation.

It can also start to create rules in the neurological disease field, and provide funding and support for employees, employers, and science.

"The cure is not yet known, and we still don't see enough financial support for research," said Ruiz de la Torre.

What does a friendly work environment look like?

In a Harvard Business Review analysis, neurologist Olivia Begasse listed the three most effective strategies for creating migraine-friendly work places: education, management and a supportive environment.

Increasing understanding between managers, coworkers and employees with migraines is associated with a 29-36 percent increase in productivity, the publication reports.

Better prevention and management by employers led to a decrease in migraine-related absences and an increase in migraine worker productivity.

Rethinking work environments also showed a positive impact for these companies.

'Migraine-friendly' workplaces range from offering greater flexibility to these employees, to improving their working conditions through adequate lighting, space to move or exercise, loud noise-free areas or good air quality, among others.

Improving working conditions for these employees will require a range of 'hard' and 'soft' approaches, and coordinated action at national and European level involving social partners and stakeholders, concludes the Work Foundation report.

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