Presenteeism is one of those made-up words that hasn’t quite made it into the most respected dictionaries or they haven’t quite agreed on what it means. But for those of us who are involved in HR or employee health, presenteeism is defined as employees coming into work when they are unwell. This has an obvious impact on their productivity and potentially that of others if this leads to the spread of a virus such as influenza.

Many of the medical conditions that result in presenteeism are relatively benign. More serious conditions mean that people have to stay away from work.

If many of the conditions that result in presenteeism are minor in nature, they are not minor in terms of cost to industry. Estimates put the cost of presenteeism to UK industry at £15bn per year. Absenteeism, where the sick worker stays at home, only accounts for approximately £8bn.

Because of its relatively benign causes, research on presenteeism concentrates on allergies, asthma, gastro-intestinal disorders, depression and such chronic or episodic ailments such as back pain, neck pain, migraines and other kinds of headaches.

Every year in the UK neck pain, migraines and other kinds of headaches account for 1.7 million lost working days. Most computer workers with these types of symptoms, however, experience productivity loss which is derived from a decreased performance at work and not from sickness absence.

Nearly 50 per cent of the population is affected by headaches during their lives and the experience of a headache can have a negative impact on the physical aspect of their well-being. A headache reduces our ability to focus on our work. This leads to sub-optimal performance, presenteeism and absenteeism.

If we are to find an effective means of managing headaches we need to consider the balance between the resources that our personal health profile offers and the physical challenges we face at work each day.

In terms of our personal health profile, many people put their headaches down to such things as too little water or too much alcohol. In fact, these types of supposed causal factors have less influence than certain physical factors.

It is now known that most headaches are actually caused by increased pressure on the neck which can be initiated or aggravated by bad posture. This causes a neck headache, or as it is known medically, a cervicogenic headache.

Your neck headache can originate from a variety of musculoskeletal and neurovascular structures in your upper neck, including the upper three neck joints, the first disc in the spine, spinal cord coverings and neck muscles.

A dysfunction in these areas can trigger pain signals that travel to your brainstem. This information is then transmitted into your brain and interpreted as a headache.

Dysfunction in the upper neck may be seen in up to 70 per cent of the population suffering from any type of headache. This suggests that the cervical spine may be either a causative or contributing factor of many headaches.

The good news is that the headache can be alleviated in these cases by fixing the problem in the upper neck. Fixing the neck problem involves prevention and treatment.

In terms of prevention the importance of a good workstation set up cannot be overstated. It is known, for example, that working with your neck twisted in an awkward posture can lead to the dysfunction in the joints and muscles of the upper neck, which will then cause a headache, and loss of concentration and the sequels of presenteeism and absenteeism.

Within this context an appropriate display screen assessment that addresses poor and static postures will go a long way to prevent problems in the upper neck. In terms of treatment, your qualified physiotherapist and GP will be able to diagnose the source and treat the headache. Physiotherapy from a qualified physiotherapist experienced in this field can have a very quick and effective result for relieving your neck headache.

In a small percentage of patients there can be a serious reason for the headache. If you have any of the symptoms set out below it is recommended that you inform your qualified physiotherapist and seek the advice of your GP or a medical centre.

  • Sudden or severe headache.
  • New or ‘different’ headache to your normal type.
  • Your ‘worst headache ever’.
  • Signs of neurological complications, for example, motor weakness, memory loss, confusion, behaviour changes, reduced alertness or meningismus (stiff neck + photophobia + headache).
  • New headache onset over the age of 40 to 50 years.
  • Headaches at night or waking in the morning.
  • Headache associated with systemic symptoms, for example, weight loss, fever, nausea or vomiting.
  • Onset of headache after cough or sneeze, exercise, coitus or head-turning.
    New onset of a headache during or following pregnancy.

In summary, headaches in the working population have a negative effect on physical well-being which can lead to Presenteeism and absenteeism.

Good workstation set up can prevent the causes of neck dysfunction that lead to headache and effective treatment from a qualified physiotherapist can bring quick and effective relief.

This is one of the many interesting articles from the summer edition of the Cardinus Connect magazine which brings together contributions from ergonomics, safety and risk management experts. If you haven’t already done so, request your free copy here.

With the world’s most widely used DSE/office ergonomics e-learning and self risk assessment tool, Workstation Safety Plus Cardinus can help. Workstation Safety Plus helps over 2000 organisations achieve full compliance with legislation while reducing injury exposure and absenteeism. For more information click here.

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