02 February 2006

Headaches: The productivity killer

One in five employees at a company suffers from headaches that impair their ability to do their jobs effectively. An expert has advice.

Up to one in five employees at the average South African company suffers from acute or chronic headaches that impair their ability to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

That's the word from Dr Elliot Shevel, specialist in the treatment and prevention of headaches and medical director of The Headache Clinic.

Headaches cost employers in the US $18bn a year in lost productivity, says Shevel. While no similar statistics are available for South Africa, headaches occur in similar proportions across countries, cultures and races, making it a safe bet that headache-related productivity losses are costing the economy millions or perhaps even billions of rand.

"Few people will skip work because of a headache, which means that absenteeism reports do not paint a clear picture of how much productivity your company may be losing to headaches. Most headache and migraine sufferers go to work and try to soldier on, regardless of their pain.”

Relationships suffer
Medical research shows that more than 70% of migraine sufferers experience impairments in interpersonal relationships, including work relationships. The incidence of depression and loss of short-term memory, which also drain a sufferer’s productivity, is far greater among headache sufferers.

About 20% of the world’s population, across national and cultural boundaries, suffer from chronic and debilitating headaches. Despite the common incidence of headaches, many people who are subject to them suffer in silence fearing that bosses and co-workers will not be sympathetic.

“Most headache sufferers rely on over-the-counter medications for relief, which expose them to the added problems of medication side-effects. These medications may cause drowsiness and lack of concentration, and often lead to medication overuse headache,” says Shevel. Medication overuse headaches are often even worse than the pains the sufferer was seeking relief from.

Headache-prone executives who frequently need to go to meetings or deal with stressful situations often develop the habit of using medication to prevent a headache developing at an inopportune moment. This is the first step towards analgesic rebound headache, a form of medication overuse headache caused by analgesic compounds used in many headache tablets.

Dr Shevel says that the good news is that the loss of productivity can be remedied by encouraging employees to seek treatment for their headaches. Since most employees are on medical aid, this needn’t cost the company a cent.

As a first step, companies should gauge how much productivity they are losing to headaches. A free, simple survey available on The Headache Clinic’s website provides a benchmark. This Quality of Life test asks 14 questions that provide a scientifically accurate picture of how much headaches impact on a person’s ability to function at home and at work. The assessment, utsed by the leading international headache Journals, is available free of charge at

Seeking help
The next step is to encourage people who are not as productive as they should be to seek help. They should look for assistance from a medical service provider that can help them identify the root cause of their headaches through a multidisciplinary assessment, says Dr Shevel.

“There are many different structures in the head and neck, all of which can be involved in the headache process. That means no single specialist will have the knowledge necessary to make a comprehensive assessment and diagnosis. For instance, a neurologist will examine the brain and nervous system, a physiotherapist will look at the muscles, a dentist will examine the teeth, and so on."

A multidisciplinary assessment combines and integrates the expertise of different specialists who would normally treat headache patients in isolation into a single body of knowledge.

By working together to provide a co-ordinated treatment plan, a team of medical specialists can address all factors that contribute to the patient’s headache and prevent future headaches, says Dr Shevel.

Find out more: Post a question to Dr Shevel, Health24's Headache Expert.


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