November 22, 2012

Many UK People Suffering From Migraines Lack Work Support

The Migraine Trust Special Report

Legislation potentially flouted amid multimillion days lost each year

Three in five workers (60%) who suffer from migraine report their employer has failed to make helpful adjustments, potentially flouting anti-discrimination laws, a charity warns today.

Almost half (46.3%) say their workplace treats them unfairly over their absence through sickness, more than one in three (40.5%) feels unsupported by their bosses and colleagues, and three in ten (30.5%) have experienced disciplinary action linked to their condition.

Almost one in five (18.6%) either are in health or social care jobs, or if employed would work in the sector. The figure is nearly one in seven (14%) for those now or potential employees in teaching and education or government and public administration, according to a survey conducted by the Migraine Trust.

The poll findings cite far higher prejudice compared to the charity´s 2006 research, which showed a lower, though substantial proportion of workers, 34%, faced difficulties or intolerance.

More than a fifth (21.7%) left a job because of migraine — one respondent disclosed she had lost her last three posts over time off ill, another was bullied by a manager, and a third left fearing dismissal after being told to pull herself together.

One NHS employee was subjected to occupational health assessment for only five days´ absence, felt a victim of blame culture and has sometimes dragged herself into work feeling dreadful to avoid further scrutiny.

Another said that even in a job for a disability charity she was treated as a hypochondriac and told to improve her sickness levels.

Others claimed that amid staff cuts they were singled out for redundancy, or found getting a job hard due to their condition.

Marion, employed by a Whitehall-based central government department, suffered migraines so bad that she had to be carried from meetings by worried colleagues, and faced the threat of losing her job over her sick leave record.

Despite a neurologist explaining the severity of the condition to the human resources section, and an occupational health doctor advising the employer to adjust the open plan office lighting that could have been triggering attacks, only the bulbs over her desk were changed, with little impact.

Marion — not her real name to protect her identity - was told a scheduled department move under the graduate scheme could not take place as she was “not a sellable asset” and the employer tried to move her off the scheme.

Only by negotiating a switch to another department without HR´s support did she find backing from her new boss.

Her disability was recognized, time off for hospital visits granted and her disability-related sickness absence monitored accordingly.

This led to her sickness absence record being cut from about 50 days in one year, including hospital treatment, to five days a year.

Earlier, lack of help could have cost Whitehall a staffer who is now a temporary manager working towards substantive promotion.

Marion, 33, who lives in Bedfordshire, is married and has a one-year-old son, said: “Losing the job would have had a huge effect on me. Financially, we could have survived, but it would have been very hard. Psychologically, it would have killed me.

“The difference a supportive and understanding boss makes is the difference between being at work or unemployed, or it was for me.”

In stark contrast, Ian Watmore received support for his migraine in senior civil service jobs, such as heading the prime minister´s delivery unit and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, besides as the Football Association´s chief executive and managing director of the multinational company Accenture.

Watmore, 54, who lives in Cheshire and now chairs the Migraine Trust, said: “I believe, with only anecdotal evidence, that men are much more likely not to declare their suffering. Senior men that I have spoken to say the same as me. They saw it as a lonely thing to endure, and a sign of weakness to admit to others. So they keep it quiet.

“I always declared to my employers once I knew I had migraine and all were supportive, as were fellow employees when I made it public. Being open about it enabled other employees to feel it was OK to admit to migraine attacks and not feel stigmatized.

”I am living proof that it is possible to achieve your personal ambitions at whatever level while suffering from this dreadful condition.

“But I would have benefited so much from earlier diagnosis, earlier discovery of medication, access to support networks of fellow sufferers, and a general acceptance that it is a health condition, not a sign of weakness.”

Elsewhere, within industry, when Jo, a regulatory manager who advises on the development of new medicines, found her hot desk office aggravated her migraine, she was given her own desk, which has since become formalized at her request.

Jenny Owen, 37, who is married, with sons aged six and three, and lives in Middlesex, said: “This has helped me greatly and helps minimize my attacks by removing some triggers. It is good to know my employer is understanding and supportive.”

Hannah Verghese, the Migraine Trust´s advocacy and policy manager, said: “Many employers are failing to recognize the severity of the condition or make appropriate adjustments for employees with migraine.

“Sufferers are too often put at a disadvantage in the workplace.  They are penalized by harsh sickness absence policies and unaware of their rights, many try to cover up their condition and do not ask for support for fear of being stigmatized.

“Employers need to be aware of the disabling impact of the condition and provide support and fair treatment for migraine sufferers at work.”

Official figures show 25 million days are lost from work or school each year through migraine.

The trust has produced a new free Employment Advocacy Toolkit, which provides guidance for migraine sufferers, their colleagues, managers, human resource department and occupational health professionals.

People can obtain copies of the toolkit at