After living and working with chronic migraine for 20 years, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a silver lining for Evelise Müller.
People with migraine don’t always know when their next attack will be or when a workplace trigger could set off an attack. Any number of simple activities could prompt a cascade of increasing and debilitating pain. Just ask Evelise Müller.
An accountant by training and education, Evelise has been coping with chronic migraine pain for 20 years. “I typically have around two weeks per month of migraine,” she says. “And they vary. Sometimes they’re very strong; sometimes they’re not too strong. …But if I have a stressful day ahead of me [at work], I know it will be harder for me to deal with the migraine.”
Learning How to Deal With Migraine
She points out that when you have migraine attacks as often as she does, you simply have to go on with life. “I can’t, you know, skip work every day, every time I have a migraine. It’s just not possible,” she says. “Sometimes, when I had a very bad migraine attack, I would go to my manager and say, ‘Look, I’m not feeling well. I have to be in a dark room for half an hour.’” She would look for an empty room away from the noise and bright office lights to recover. “This is a thing I’ve done throughout my work life,” Evelise says.
Until recently, Evelise had been working full time in an office environment for 14 years. Working in an office means it’s not always easy to take breaks when you’re not feeling well. When Evelise worked 45 minutes away from her house, she couldn’t drive home when she was feeling unwell. “I had to wait until I felt better. Driving home was something that could be hard for me to do if I was having a bad migraine attack,” she says.
Migraine Triggers in the Workplace
Evelise has worked at big and small offices and found that working in a small office (15 people or less) added even more strain. In the large companies she worked for, there were tools and systems in place to help her minimize migraine symptoms. For instance, workstations were likely to be equipped with fluorescent light covers and screen protectors to reduce the harsh lighting and glare. And the larger businesses hired facilities managers who would regulate temperatures and maintain a comfortable indoor climate.
In comparison, Evelise struggled to control her environment at the smaller office, which often triggered her migraine attacks. She says on cold days people would blast the heat to the point where the office was like a sauna.
“It was really hot,” says Evelise. “And then almost every day after lunch I would get a migraine attack” because of the heat and lack of ventilation. She says the temperature changes were very hard to handle: “Going outside in the cold for lunch and coming back to the hot, stuffy office…would trigger constant migraine attacks, and bouts of nausea, that were hard to deal with without ventilation.
“It came to a point where I would ask my boss if I could sit near a window,…because I could open the window a little bit to ventilate me when I started to feel unwell,” she explains.
Working From Home the Best Solution of All
Though her acute migraine medication helped Evelise reduce her migraine symptoms a lot, like nausea, she still had to deal with all of the other triggers that can emerge in an office setting: fluorescent lights, noise, certain smells, heat, stress, and in Evelise’s line of work, deadlines. They can all contribute to triggering or worsening a migraine attack.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to send their employees home, Evelise learned working remotely was the best possible solution for addressing her migraine symptoms.
“Since the pandemic started, I haven’t been back to the office, and it’s been life-changing,” she says. “It has improved my quality of life.” She says she can control the noise level, temperature, lighting and screen time, which has made a huge difference.
“And I can take breaks when I’m not feeling well,” she continues. This was not always easy to do in the office.
“So when I’m home I can feel better much faster,” Evelise says. “The fact that I can recover from a migraine attack faster in my own home is a huge improvement for myself.”
And it’s an improvement for the employer, too. Evelise says she’s more productive as a remote worker. She doesn’t have as many office-related migraine attacks, having removed many of the triggers. She says her migraine is more predictable than it was before.
“My job has become fully remote. And I’m very happy about it because working from home has been so good for my health,” she says.
Learning Ireland’s Health System With Help From Local IHS-GPAC Member Organization
Originally from Brazil, Evelise has been living and working in Ireland since 2016. It was there she was introduced to the Migraine Association of Ireland (Migraine Ireland), an IHS-GPAC member. She says the organization helped her learn how to navigate the health system, which is different from Brazil’s.
Although Evelise doesn’t consider herself to be a patient advocate, her experience can be a beacon of hope to the migraine community. The pandemic has presented her with the opportunity to work remotely, which has changed her outlook. She says her symptoms are more manageable and predictable. The workplace triggers have been eliminated.
Still, Evelise says a migraine workplace education program could have helped her cope with the discomfort of feeling unwell at work. She thinks if migraine education is combined with how the office looks, feels and functions physically (i.e., ergonomics), it would be more impactful for all employees, not just those with migraine.