As an “invisible” disease, migraine is misunderstood, which can lead to difficulties in the workplace.
Migraine is called an “invisible” disease because of its not-so-obvious signs and symptoms. As such, there are many misconceptions about migraine. Misunderstanding and stigma are all over. It can come from peers, employers, coworkers, institutions, and even be internalized.
Having migraine symptoms at work can feel isolating, especially when a colleague dismisses the condition as “just a bad headache.” This is why employers need to encourage a supportive and understanding work environment. It decreases misunderstandings and stigma against migraine.
We sat down with Aaron Power, a digestion technician who works for a Vancouver-based contracting company, to discuss how migraine affected his experiences at work, how he managed his symptoms at work and how his disease was misunderstood by colleagues. Read more to learn about handling migraine in the workplace.
How to Handle Migraine at Work
Migraine attacks can be unpredictable, but prodrome—the first phase of migraine—can signal an incoming attack. Migraine attacks can happen out of nowhere or when a trigger sets it off. Common triggers include sensitivity to light and sounds, changes in weather, stress, and more.
Working in an environment with bright colors, lights and unusual patterns, Aaron was in a position that frequently triggered symptoms and attacks. As such, he had to make adjustments and accommodations in order to effectively manage his migraine. One way he managed it was wearing anti-glare glasses to help minimize his trigger of bright lights and the color white. He also took close note of his triggers.
“I find, with me, one of my biggest triggers is sleep,” Aaron says. “The other one is actually if I get dehydrated. What I try to do is just make sure that I’m hydrated during the day and that I’m getting enough sleep.”
So, what if your workplace has triggers? Speak with your employer for workplace accommodations. Accommodations can make a huge difference for employees with migraine.
Accommodations can prevent losses for the organization. Migraine costs employers at least $13 billion in productivity loss annually. 89% of these losses come from presenteeism—when an employee is present at work but not as productive as they want to be. Employers and coworkers must understand that a migraine is not “just a headache.”
Advocating for Yourself and Knowing Your Limits
Because there are so many misconceptions about migraine, it’s important to share what migraine actually is. To get the care and support you need in the workplace, you often have to advocate and educate others.
Remember, your disease does not make you an inconvenience. Figuring out how to navigate and manage migraine is a constant journey for many people. One way to advocate for yourself in the workplace is knowing and acknowledging limits.
Sometimes, migraine can be overwhelming. When that happens, the best option would be to take time off for your health and well-being if/when possible. It is understandable how this can be difficult, especially if your coworkers do not understand the severity of your migraine. Planning ahead also helps when possible to avoid rushing or last minute, especially if a migraine attack occurs right before a deadline.
Understanding Goes a Long Way
Perhaps the following scenario seems familiar if you have migraine: you’re at your desk in the office when you start to feel prodrome. You let your team know you must take the rest of the day off to handle your incoming attack. As a result, you will have to postpone some deadlines. Your team lead suggests you take an ibuprofen tablet and that it should be able to help you stay for the remainder of the day. When you explain to your team lead about your migraine symptoms and how debilitating an attack is, they comment that you must have “a really bad headache.”
Because migraine is largely invisible, those who don’t live with it often dismiss its severity and impact. Sometimes, disclosing your migraine diagnosis could be met with outright disbelief or contribute to not progressing with your career. These are all frustrating experiences.
“I find that the understanding isn’t there,” Aaron continues. “If somebody actually has never had a migraine [attack] or has only had one once, they’re not going to understand exactly what you’re going through.”
Colleagues may not mean to misunderstand, but it doesn’t make it any less discouraging when your disease is not taken seriously. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that the workplace is a supportive environment. This is why workplace accommodations need to be put into place.
If you have migraine, you need and deserve to have proper support and care. Don’t be afraid to let your employer know about your condition and educate them on the disease. You can even suggest they integrate education programs, like Migraine Fitness at Work, as part of their inclusion and accessibility efforts.
“Just giving people an awareness of it will allow them to manage it better or to see the signs better,” Aaron comments.
Migraine is a disease that affects about 1 billion people worldwide, but it is still highly misunderstood. People do not understand migraine due to a lack of awareness and education. As such, this could make experiences in the workplace more difficult. However, by continuing to advocate for yourself and educating colleagues about what migraine truly is–a debilitating illness that can disrupt your daily life.