Navigating Life with Migraine in the Workplace

4 Steps to Starting the Conversation About Migraine at Work

In America, over 113 million workdays are lost due to migraine every year. Dr. Elizabeth Leroux is a Clinical Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Calgary, and a migraine advocate. We asked her to share techniques for navigating migraine in the workplace, from requesting accommodations to assembling a migraine support team.

“Many of my patients have asked me, ‘Am I the only one struggling in the workplace with migraine?’”says Dr. Leroux. The short answer is no. Migraine is the third most common disorder in the whole world and affects 37 million Americans, most of who are in the most productive years of their life. Here are Dr. Leroux’s four steps to starting the conversations needed to manage migraines in the workplace.

1. Know Your Migraine

Take inventory of the situation by identifying what type of migraine you have, episodic or chronic, and how that impacts your life. The American Migraine Foundation’s resource library is full of doctor-verified information and is the best place to start to educate yourself on your condition. “Then, define your goals,” Dr. Leroux suggested, adding, “Is it possible for you to work full-time? Is there a possibility you can work part-time? Do you need to apply for disability?” Only once your goal is set can you identify the steps it’ll take to achieve it.

2. Assemble Your Migraine Support Team

Once you’ve identified your asks, make sure to lean on your healthcare provider and migraine support network to make your request in an effective way. “Involve your physician, and discuss openly with your employer,” said Dr. Leroux, pointing out that a physician’s note can establish migraine as a disabling disease and provide reason for your request. “Maybe your employer has no idea what migraine is, in which case directing them to resources from the American Migraine Foundation can help you educate your employer and co-workers about the disease,” said Dr. Leroux.

3. Identify Reasonable Accommodations

If you do opt to continue working full or part-time, it might be time to look around your workplace and suggest reasonable accommodations for your migraine. “Workplaces are filled with potential triggers for migraine,” she explained, “The brain interacts with the environment so it can be affected by a co-worker who just wears this very strong perfume.” Other triggers include bright or fluorescent lights, loud noises, shift work, and strong odors such as perfumes, candles, and air fresheners.

Once you identify the migraine triggers, make a list of productive ideas to make you more efficient at work. Don’t be intimidated by your requests. A computer stand to facilitate better posture or a tinted screen cover to soften the screen glare is a relatively small accommodation to make the office more accessible. Additionally, according to Dr. Leroux, “no scents policies are becoming more commonplace as employers acknowledge that strong scents can trigger migraine attacks, and even be irritating for people without migraine.”

4. Start the Conversation About Migraines at Work

Lastly, schedule a meeting and have the conversation. Dr. Leroux reminds us, “In life, you do not get what you want. You will get what you negotiate.” Her advice is to put yourself in the employer’s shoes and to frame requests based on productivity and being the best employee you can be. “The employer has to manage the workforce, has to manage employees,” she said, “So you have to present reasonable accommodations in a reasonable tone.”

Our Move Against Migraine group is full of people who have had to navigate similar situations. While every workplace is different, learning what techniques worked for others could help you frame your request and give you some perspective (and courage!) before you ask. We recently asked our group what kind of accommodations they’ve received from their employers and wrote this article based on their helpful responses.

Whether you’re applying for social security disability or advocating for migraine-friendly workplaces, the American Migraine Foundation is here for you. Together we can help people achieve their goals in the workplace.