The disregarded impact of migraine on workplace productivity

 By Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng


AS clearly demonstrated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, public and individual health are woven intrinsically into the country’s economy and gross development product (GDP).

During the March to May 2020 nation-wide movement control order (MCO), the second quarter GDP slumped to an unprecedented 17.1% contraction. On the other end of the health-economy nexus, medical conditions such as migraine are frequently underestimated as a significant factor in a workforce’s potential productivity.

Migraines tend to be brushed off as a condition that needs to be powered through but in actual fact, affects the sufferer’s physical and emotional wellbeing as well as the motivation to work.

A large-scale study conducted in the US indicated that migraine-related productivity loss resulted in an economic impact of at least US$45.9 mil within a year in the banking sectors.

Malaysians are accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle with high degrees of stress and anxiety. This is one the many prominent trigger points for migraine and in light with the COVID-19 pandemic, stress levels and anxiety are on the rise.

Furthermore, it is quite unfortunate that migraine presents itself most frequently during an individual’s most productive years (working age of 31-40 years).

What many may not realise is that a migraine goes beyond a normal headache and is now increasingly recognised as a global cause of disability, as it causes an impairment to the sufferer.

In Malaysia, there has been no extensive research to explore the impact of migraine on productivity. It is therefore commendable that Novartis Malaysia collaborated with the University of Malaya to further investigate this occurrence by surveying over 1,200 employees within the banking sector.

The study revealed that productivity is impacted in two ways; absenteeism and presenteeism (working but at less than full productivity).

On average, the monetary loss of absenteeism per employee within a year was almost RM1,600. However, for those suffering from severe migraine, the economic impact increased more than seven-fold with an immense financial loss of nearly RM12,400.

When comparing absenteeism and presenteeism, the latter takes the lead causing an average productivity loss of 39.1%, which is almost 20-fold higher than the former (1.9%).

In fact, the highest monetary loss of almost RM26,000, was related to presenteeism in those suffering more than three days of migraine attacks in a week. These findings suggest that individuals prefer to go to work or stay at work while suffering a migraine.

Migraine sufferers may not necessarily voice out their concerns due to fear of being stigmatised as unreliable due to their lack of productivity during attacks. Prolonging this cycle not only causes a loss to the employee, but also businesses who fail to grasp the economic impact of the financial loss.

Appropriate remedial or support systems should be in place to detect and flag these potential timebombs. Some solutions include flexibility in workloads and working hours when employees are suffering from an attack. For example, coming in earlier or working remotely.

Additionally, employers can invite neurologists, who are the experts in treating migraines to speak at the workplace. Further incentives should be explored by employers to ensure their staff visits a neurologist and receive the appropriate treatment plan for effective management. This could be done by expanding the employee health coverage to include migraine ailments.

The negative impact of migraine on an organisation’s performance results in lower output and productivity indicating that the country’s labour force is not maximising its full potential.

Hence, its potential GDP would have been higher in the absence of migraine afflicting its workforce. Scaling up from the results of the study, the invisible or unaccounted loss to the economy is sizeable.

When looking at other nations, a substantial loss is seen as well, for example, in the UK where migraine was found to cost £8.8 bil in productivity loss within a year. Coming closer to Malaysian shores, our neighbour, Singapore reported a loss of S$1.04 bil in economic losses in 2018.

Recognizing migraine as a health condition that needs addressing is the first step businesses and organizations need to make. The Malaysian Government has shown a willingness to address the economic losses caused by large scale health issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by the numerous stimulus packages contained in the 2021 Budget.

However, the government requires the support of businesses as well as HR organisations and health care professionals, to truly understand the importance of migraine and work towards sustainable solutions that will benefit the migraineurs, their employers, and ultimately, the nation itself. – Feb 17, 2021


Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng is a senior fellow and director of the Economic Studies Programme at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia at Sunway University.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


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