Headaches at work

Headaches are such a common problem that it's not surprising they often occur while people are at work. But there may be specific environmental reasons why some people suffer on the job.

The scale of the problem

Headaches can be hugely disruptive. More than 18 million working days are lost each year because of migraines, for example. This particularly debilitating type of headache can cause intense symptoms lasting up to three days and which are often so severe that concentration and co-ordination becomes difficult and it is simply impossible to carry on working.

In severe cases, headaches can interfere with promotion and career prospects. Employers may worry the person simply isn't up to the stresses of the job while people who experience frequent headaches fear that they're letting their colleagues down by insisting on regular breaks or other conditions to avoid triggering a headache.

What triggers headaches at work?

All types of headaches, especially tension or stress-related headaches and migraine, are common in the workplace, probably because many similar trigger factors may be involved (see box below). In some types of headache, especially migraine, several trigger factors may add up until a threshold is passed and a headache results.

Triggers of a headache at work
  • Stress, worry, tension, anxiety etc about workload, deadlines, demands of job (or worrying about family at home)
  • Disputes with colleagues or clients
  • Uncomfortable working environment - heat, noise, dry or smoky atmosphere, poor lighting or uncomfortable desk/seating putting tension on spine and neck
  • Prolonged use of VDU or computer (headaches are a feature of computer vision syndrome)
  • Persisting at one task for hours or not taking a frequent break
  • Not having had a proper breakfast, or missing lunch
  • Not having had a good night's rest (this may be important in people doing shift work)
  • Alcohol (a drink at lunchtime or a party the night before)