From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Oh My Aching Head

Headaches come in all different forms: sometimes persistent, sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes the result of a bigger annoyance like a cold or the flu. But on the surface, they’re a personal issue, not a workplace issue, right?


Wrong, says research.  Those simple headaches and their more aggressive counterparts, can and do affect the workplace, and they do so by taking a bite out of worker productivity.


In June 2002, research was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health that analyzed the financial impact of one type of headache, migraines, on a large financial services corporation. Twenty percent of the nearly 20,000 workers who took part in the study reported a history of migraine headaches; researchers determined that, through costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, and health care, the company spent between $21.5 and $24.4 million on headaches alone that year.


Migraines, considered to be primary headaches, those that aren’t caused by a separate physical disease or disorder, are estimated to affect nearly 20 percent of the population, particularly women. But migraines aren’t the only headaches that cost businesses big bucks.  Other headaches, like sinus headaches or tension headaches, can impact productivity as well.  Earlier this year, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health published research that found that the severity rather than the type of headache impacted the productivity and performance most.  So a really bad tension headache or sinus headache could affect a worker’s ability to work just like a debilitating migraine headache.  And how much does any headache impact productivity?  Workers in the study who reported headaches felt their performance dropped during the headache episode by 20 percent (although researchers only noted an eight percent loss).


Should Workplaces Invest In Aspirin?

Sometimes getting rid of a headache takes more than a pair of aspirin has to offer.  “Research has shown that for some people, an aspirin might work,” said Jennifer Lofland, PharmD, MPH, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.  But aspirin won’t work for everyone, she said, particularly not in the workplace.


Headaches themselves can be triggered by any number of environmental factors found in the workplace.  Certain smells, lights or sounds might trigger a headache, for example. Stress can cause a tension headaches, computers and the workspace setup could also be contributors.  “There are a lot of triggers out there,” said Lofland who is studying the impact on the workplace that migraine headaches have, particularly how they affect presenteeism.  “It can be anything. . . perfume, it could be a smell, certain lights. . . stress may bring it on,” she said.


What makes headaches so pesky for business? Lofland’s points to a number of reasons: one, everyone gets headaches; two, women are three times as likely to be affected by migraine headaches as men; three, people who are affected by migraine headaches tend to be in their prime working years

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-03-23.