Tag Archives: Workers

Employers that help workers manage headaches stand to win big on productivity

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, are looking into how migraines and tension headaches are impacting our ability to do productive work. The findings raise some interesting questions regarding how we think about and treat such conditions, and also point out that both workers and employers stand to benefit from better management of employees suffering from frequent headaches.

Image credits Robin Higgins.

Both migraines and tension headaches can be debilitating experiences. People suffering from either become hyper-sensitive to outside stimuli, from a door slamming to a curtain being drawn. And, quite understandably, such situations make it near impossible for them to be productive, and virtually guarantees that the quality of their work will drop.

A migraine attack can last for up to 72 hours if untreated, and tension headaches can draw out for up to a week. Needless to say, overall, such events represent a huge drain on the overall productiveness of a workforce. In Denmark alone (with a population of 5.8 million), the authors explain, roughly 770,000 people suffer from migraine or frequent tension headaches. Their study is the first to focus on the effect these conditions have upon our ability to work.

A head full of trouble

“Migraine is the leading cause of functional impairment among people under the age of 50. And headaches have negative effects on sick leave and productivity. So, it would benefit workplaces to open their eyes to the untapped potential that you find here. Indeed, we cannot afford not to take it seriously,” says corresponding author of the study, Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen.

“It is especially the ability to remember, make quick decisions and do hard physical work that cause difficulties for people with these headache disorders.”

Migraines are bouts of moderate to severe, pulsating headaches, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Tension headache is characterized by mild to severe pain, on both sides of the head, but usually without nausea. Both are considered ‘chronic’ if they occur for more than 14 days a month.

Roughly 24% of women and 10% of the men in the Danish working population suffer from migraines or frequent tension headaches. How well these men and women can adapt to their tasks during headaches depends, largely, on their type of employment;

Those in academic positions will often have the luxury of going home a little earlier, working remotely, or postponing tasks that demand the most focus. Others, especially those working physical jobs such as cleaning or nursing staff, don’t often have this option. Instead, workers in these fields of employment may have to call in sick due to migraines or headaches. There is some evidence that headaches are the second-most common cause of sick leave, she explains, second only to infectious disease.

Managers and workers can however collaborate to find solutions that work for both parties and don’t force an ailing employee to give up an entire day of work. For example, the work schedule can be shifted around to allow the employee to postpone more difficult tasks for some that can be solved at a leisurely pace or in a quiet space until the pain has subsided.

She also believes that there are still many unknowns in the general public regarding the importance of headache disorders. For example, she explains that taking too many painkillers can actually lead to more headaches.

“Most people have experienced headaches. Therefore, it may be difficult to understand how debilitating migraine and frequent headaches may be for a colleague, friend or family member. People still have the notion that it will be sufficient to swallow a pill.”

For the study, the team used information about migraines and frequent headaches from literature and tracked the painkiller usage of over 5,000 Danish participants with different educational backgrounds. Participants also provided information about their health, depressive symptoms and pain in muscles and joints. They were also asked about their “ability to cope with seven different, specific requirements at work” to give researchers an accurate idea of their ability to perform professionally.

One of the key findings of the study was that depressive symptoms and pain in muscles or joints are associated with headache disorders and their ill effect on our ability to work. Handling these depressive symptoms and pain may therefore help reduce the symptoms of people with headache disorders and improve their ability to perform. These findings align with previous research that found a link between headaches, muscle and joint pain, and depressive symptoms.

These findings mean that feeling neck pain may be a warning sign of a migraine attack, just as frequent headache attacks may affect the mood negatively. Mood changes may also be indicative of an upcoming headache, the team adds.

The two groups in the study whose ability to work was most affected by migraines were participants who took no painkillers at all, and those who used them daily. This suggests that the two groups are under- and over-treated, respectively. The first is feeling the full debilitating effect of the pain, while the other is likely not receiving the correct medication and may even be suffering the symptoms of medication overuse.

“On the other hand, when you look at the group who does not take medication at all, it seems to indicate that they are undermedicated. And maybe it has to do with the fact that they do not consider their illness to be severe enough to seek medical attention — but that is just our guess,” says Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen.

Based on these findings, the team makes three recommendations. The first is that people take their headaches seriously and visit their doctor for advice and medical treatment, if needed. Secondly, employers should consider steps to adapt work during an employee’s headache attacks, which will reduce absenteeism. Thirdly, people with headache disorders should take steps to handle other types of pain disorders (such as neck-shoulder pain) and protect their mental health, to help prevent headaches as much as possible and protect their quality of life.

The paper “Demand-specific work ability among employees with migraine or frequent headache” has been published in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics.

Low-wage workers, among the most hit by coronavirus

With many states under lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the United States economy. But not everybody will feel the same impact, as low-income workers don’t have the financial cushion to absorb the blow.

The food sector, among one the most affected. Credit Flickr

Up to 53 million people in the U.S. — 44% of the country’s workers — earn low wages, with median hourly earnings of $10.22. They already have precarious economic circumstances but with the COVID-19 they are at a greater risk than ever.

According to an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute, the battle to contain COVID-19 could leave 42 million to 57 million net jobs vulnerable to reductions in hours or pay, temporary furloughs, or permanent layoffs.

“People who were living paycheck to paycheck do not have the financial cushion to absorb a shock of this magnitude. They need immediate assistance to pay the rent, keep the lights on, and put food on the table,” the report reads.

The researchers analyzed the vulnerability of more than 800 occupations based on whether or not they are typically deemed “essential” and whether they require close proximity to others. Then it analyzed the sector-level effects of changes in demand related to physical distancing.

Just two service industries — accommodation and food services, plus retail — account for 42% of vulnerable jobs, the report showed. Although many restaurants are using takeout and delivery, they may need fewer people to do so, and some will struggle to pay rent in the coming months.

Stores deemed “nonessential” have been closed in much of the country. Travel has also ground to a halt, canceling many flights and emptying out hotels and tourist attractions. By contrast, losses could be much more contained in primary sectors such as utilities, agriculture, and mining.

Credit McKinsey

Among the estimated 13.4 million jobs that could be affected in the restaurant industry, 3.6 million involve food preparation and serving (a category that includes fast food). Another 2.6 million restaurant servers and 1.3 million restaurant cooks are vulnerable. Almost 11 million jobs in customer service and sales could be affected.

“Even before the pandemic, some 40 percent of Americans reported that they could not cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling assets. Finances were already precarious for many of the people who are now without work,” the report reads.

A separate Brookings Institution report found that the workers most vulnerable to job loss are those with a high school diploma or less. “Even in a strong economy with low unemployment, these workers were already at the lowest run of the ladder” in terms of financial security, said Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow Martha Ross.

The largest metro areas have the highest absolute numbers of low-wage workers. For example, there are 2.7 million in the Los Angeles region (53% of the workforce), which includes 500,000 retail workers, cooks, and food servers.

Smaller regions may have smaller numbers of low-wage workers, but those numbers are still substantial within the context of the local economy. Among regions with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, for example, low-wage workers make up between 35% and 56% of the total workforce.

“As policymakers weigh different stimulus measures, they should keep these millions of low-wage workers front and center as a priority. In the short term, immediate cash assistance seems likely, and it’s the right call,” the report reads.

Nevertheless, that’s not sufficient, according to Brookings and McKinsey. Many of these workers were barely making ends meet even before COVID-19. Industries such as restaurants, cruise lines, and hotels are now seeking massive federal relief and negotiations should include worker pay, benefits, and training, they argued.

Most ants don’t do much, and that makes the colony more efficient

Ant colonies increase their efficiency by letting workers take time off. New research shows that as the hive becomes more numerous, as many as 80% of workers could be doing nothing at a time.

Image credits Unsplash / Pexels.

We need a nice work-rest balance — although exactly what this ratio is varies wildly from person to person. Up to now, we’ve thought that we get the benefit of rest because we’re smart, while simpler beings such as ants slave away and then they die. We’ve got that one wrong, researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology say.

Ant colonies, they showed, can only function because a certain percentage of workers rest at any time.

“It has been a long-standing question in the field as to why large colonies of ants use less per-capita energy than small colonies,” says Dr. Chen Hou, assistant professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T and lead researcher of the paper. “In this work, we found that this is because in large colonies, there are relatively more ‘lazy workers,’ who don’t move around, and therefore don’t consume energy.”

“We found that the portion of inactive members of a group increases in a regular pattern with the group size,” Hou says.

The team put together specialized computer-imaging software to look at an ant colony and track the motion trajectories of each individual. Previously, similar research only followed the ants for a few minutes. But the team’s algorithm allowed them to follow the movement of ants over large periods of time with better accuracy than anyone before them.

This way, they found that most of the colony ‘sleeps’ to conserve energy. On average, around 60% of workers in a 30-ant group were not moving about. This ratio jumped up to 80% for a 300-strong group of ants.

Rest harder, comrade

So what’s with the vacay? Well, they do it for the common good.

The colony becomes more efficient in the long term by keeping some of its workers on stand-by. While an all-hands-on-deck approach would maximize the speed of resource acquisition, it also requires huge energy expenditure (feeding the ants) and increases foraging time (as nearby resources are over-exploited and workers need to walk to more distant sources). The team explains that off-duty ants help conserve food, energy, and other resources — while the colony gains resources at a slower rate, forage time is reduced and energy expenditure is hugely reduced.

“The simultaneous energetic measurements showed that the per capita energy consumption in the 300-ant group is only 50 percent of that in the 30-ant group,” Hou says.

“We found that walking ants consume five times more energy than resting ants,” he added. “This means that energy wise, one walking ant is equivalent to five resting ants. Thus, if a group has 20 percent active members, this group would consume 180 percent more energy than a similar sized group with all inactive members.”

So the ants try to hit a balance between the need for new resources, and the need to conserve those already harvested. The ‘lazy’ ants are still an asset to the colony. Ants rest by rotation, so there’s always a pool of fresh workers to replace the ones on duty. They can also be called upon in an emergency, kind of like a reserve army or repair team.

“We postulate that ant colonies balance these two optimization rules [income and expenditure] by the coordination of the forager’s interaction.”

“It is intuitive that colonies have inactive members […] But it is unclear why the proportion of the inactive members is not a constant — why larger colonies have relatively more ‘lazy’ workers,” Hou concludes.

Observing how ants maximize efficiency by balancing some work with a lot of rest could help make our society more productive and sustainable.

Fingers crossed on that one.

The full paper “Heterogeneous activity causes a nonlinear increase in the group energy use of ant workers isolated from queen and brood,” has been published in the journal Insect Science.