When staff report that they have been getting headaches at work, this is a headache itself for Facilities Managers, Human Resources or Safety Managers who want to help, but are understandably not always sure where to start. After all there are so many reasons why someone might be getting headaches how do you even begin to sort through them?
This article sets out the main reasons why – in my experience of dealing with this issue from a consultancy and advice point of view – people are likely to be experiencing headaches at work. To be totally honest, in my experience there’s not much alternative other than to work through these reasons, ruling things out, striking them off the list. Once you have done that, you need to focus on reasonably practicable adjustments that can be made to deal with what is left on that list – the things that are still possible causes.
The first thing to say is that if someone is experiencing severe headaches and / or repeated headaches, they should discuss it with their GP if they haven’t already done so. Although headaches are generally transitory and not a sign of a serious underlying condition, in some cases they do signify medical conditions that need urgent attention. It is always best to try to rule this out in the first instance.
Signs that someone should definitely see their GP are: headaches present despite taking painkillers, headaches getting worse over time, headaches that started after a knock on the head, severe and sudden onset (a ‘blinding’ headache), associated symptoms such as numbness, weakness, tremors, seizures or nausea. For more information on types of headache visit:
Headaches can also be a side effect of medication – particularly if someone is still adjusting to new medication. They can also indicate Hypoglycemia which is indicative of possible diabetes – so it is definitely worth checking out repeated headaches that disappear after eating.
But putting all these worst-case scenarios aside – We’ll look now at headache-related issues that are within the control and remit of HR / facilities management.
There are two key aspects of lighting that are linked with headaches: flicker frequencies and blue light intensity.
Older style fluorescents, CFL and new LED bulbs flicker at 100Hz (on a UK AC supply) unless they are fitted with a high-frequency modulator (which most are not – although modern fluorescents are typically fitted with electronic ballast which). This is not a flicker that we can consciously see or detect, but it is a frequency which is related to headaches and visual discomfort (frequencies up to 160Hz can have this effect on people that are susceptible).
An easy way to check if your lights are operating at 100Hz is to view them using your smartphone camera / screen. If you see strobing, it most likely means they are operating at 100Hz and there is scope to eliminate this potential issue by installing high-frequency modulators (or electronic ballast in the case of fluorescent lights).
The flicker issues described above are likely to be increased if these types of light are dimmed (if they are operating at 100Hz). This is because dimming is achieved by cutting out periods of light in the light-dark (on-off) cycles. This will reduce the effective frequency below 100Hz which may increase the negative effects of the flicker (again – still not a ‘visible’ flicker).
If you plan on using a dimmer (which I would recommend installing) my advice is definitely make sure the lights are powered via a high-frequency modulator.
Overall brightness and blue wavelength intensity
Direct glare from unshielded or poorly shielded lights can lead to eye strain and headaches, as can direct glare from sunlight. On the other hand, if lighting is too dim it can lead to eye strain, which can result in headaches.
Light ‘whiteness’ which tends to be determined by the levels of blue light wavelengths has also been associated with headaches and visual discomfort. Generally a lower colour temperature (which is actually associated with ‘warmer’ looking lights) is less likely to lead to headaches, as long as the colour rendering qualities (how accurately the light enables colours to be seen) are not compromised. Full spectrum bulbs are also preferable to cool or white bulbs in work areas. Be aware of white or cool bulbs sold as daylight bulbs – they are not necessarily the same as full spectrum. Full spectrum are typically favoured for workplaces where high visual acuity is needed, because they have a high colour rendering quality (CRI), but there are ‘warmer’ lights which also provide high CRI. My general rule of thumb – don’t go too white or too bright!
Research also indicates that tinted lenses can help to reduce photosensitivity, and are particularly useful for migraine sufferers if lighting is white and bright. If a staff member experiences migraines and has photosensitivity during an episode, they should definitely discuss this with their optician. See link for more details: https://irlen.com/headaches-and-migraine-research/
The recommended luminance level for a typical office is 500lx (average). Higher luminance levels are – anecdotally at least – associated with headaches. Interestingly, older generations tend to find higher light levels more tolerable, whereas younger generations prefer more subdued lighting.
Dutyholders may find lighting issues come to the fore towards the middle and end of the winter – during the long months of shorter daylight hours where peoples’ daily light ‘intake’ has had a higher artificial content for some months, over which time any sensitivity may have become more noticeable. Interestingly Seasonal Affective Disorder which may increase sensitivity to / awareness of headaches, tends to reach its peak in January / February – i.e. as daylight hours are actually just starting to increase again – (which can seem a little bit counterintuitive).
People who are sensitive to blue light wavelengths will also benefit from adjusting their screen settings to reduce those wavelengths. Apps like f.lux are popular and some newer screens have an ‘eye-saver’ mode which allows users to switch their screen to a warmer and generally less white and intense setting. Staff should be made aware of how to make these screen-setting changes when they are given their DSE risk assessments, or as part of the DSE information and training provided to them.
Glare – reflections on screen – can also be a trigger for headaches. Most modern LCD screens are unreflective, so there is less likelihood of reflections. However some screens such as those on larger Macs have a highly reflective gloss surface. Anti-glare screens can help reduce these reflections, if repositioning the screen and / or light source are not possible. Click here to see some examples.