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Essential Strategies for Coping with Migraine at Work We Love

For many of us living with migraine, the disease impacts every single aspect of our lives including the way we work. It comes with symptoms that are disabling and excruciating for many. It’s estimated that one in ten employees in a work place suffer from migraine, but in a 2016 poll of 4000 Americans more than half said they missed work due to migraine.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all manual for coping with migraine at work. Every person with migraine is different, but preventing attacks before they start, being prepared if an attack happens, implementing lifestyle changes, expressing your needs to your employer and working together to create a healthy, trigger free environment can make a positive impact & set you up for success in the workplace.

** While Migraine Strong writes about the latest in migraine treatments, this is not medical advice. We are patient educators and all information you read should be discussed with your doctor.

The Allay Lamp


Migraine at work triggers

There are many possible triggers you may encounter in the workplace, but here are some common ones…

  • Busy environments
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Noise
  • Fragrance
  • Cleaning products and pest control chemicals
  • Stress
  • Heat
  • Travel
  • Poor ergonomics
  • Screen time
  • Exertion

How to reduce migraine triggers at work

Managing and coping with migraine at work starts with preventing attacks before they start. While it’s impossible to avoid all triggers, try avoiding common triggers you can control like lighting, glare, excess noise and trigger foods. There are many small changes you can make that go a long way in creating a healthy, trigger free work environment. These changes might include bringing tools & strategies that provide comfort along with implementing healthy lifestyle changes to your daily routine.

Comfort strategies to keep at your work area

  • Allay Lamp– Research has found green light to be the most soothing. Adding it to your work space can help balance out harsher waves of light. Save 10% with promo code MIGRAINESTRONG.
  • Blue light blocking glasses- The same research found blue light to be the most harsh wave of light. Wearing blue light blocking glasses during screen time use can help keep irritated neurons calm. Save 20% on Migraine Shields with promo code MIGRAINESTRONG.
  • Earplugs or a non-looping sound machine- Mask the noise of busy indoor environment with a nature sound machine or block out noise altogether with comfortable earplugs.
  • Cooling or heating products- Be sure you’re comfortable. If your workspace is warm consider a desk fan, or cooling towel. You can save $10 on Koldtec’s Ice towel with promo code MIGRAINESTRONG10. If it’s too cold, try a heated shoulder wrap. You can save 10% on your purchase just by clicking the link provided.
  • I also love the warm pink light emitted from a salt lamp and always have one on my desk.

Lifestyle changes

  • Plan your meals and snacks- Bring meals and snacks that work with the diet you’re following. You can cook meats, veggies, rice etc. to meal prep on Sunday for the whole week.  For a quick breakfast or snack, I bake muffins and freeze them. Overnight oats is another good option.
  • Consider caffeine– Migraine brains love consistency so if you do drink it, stick with the same amount daily. If you don’t drink it daily, caffeine may be a great option to help you avoid an attack.
  • Be mindful of stress– Give yourself plenty of time to complete projects and meet deadlines. Consider writing lists to prioritize tasks because there is no better feeling than crossing items off your to do list.
  • Give your central nervous system intentional breaks- Meditate before work or practice deep breathing or yoga. Use your Calm app or take walks outside on breaks.
  • Protect your sleep–  Consider switching from working night shifts to day shifts. Keep a regular sleep schedule even on the weekend.

Coping with migraine at work takes planning ahead. If a migraine attack does happen at work be prepared by having your migraine relief kit ready. That way you’ll always know exactly how to help migraine attacks that happen at work.

To help abort an attack and comfort you at work, your migraine relief kit might include…

  • Ginger capsules- I reach for Pure Encapsulations or Gaia Herbs Ginger Supreme. These chews from The Ginger People are effective for me as well. Learn more about the benefits of ginger for migraine.
  • Magnesium capsules- I find magnesium glycinate to be the most soothing and use Pure Encapsulations brand.
  • Your medications- This is a Must! This lightweight case makes it easy to throw in your bag so you always have what you need on hand.
  • Magnesium roller ball- I’m OBSESSED with these magnesium & essential oil roller balls from Peace Love Rally and always have one with me. Save 10% with promo code MIGRAINESTRONG.
  • Migraine stick – Migrastil makes a delightful one that I always carry with me as well and you can save 10% with promo code MSTRAVEL10.

Talking with your employer about migraine at work episodes

Deciding whether & when to tell your employer about your migraine disease is tough. Generally, when it comes to work it’s best to minimize discussing personal issues, but if you’ve done all you can to minimize your triggers and migraine attacks are still affecting your work performance or reliability it may be time to discuss accommodations with your employer.

If you are an employer reading this, there are a few things those with migraine would like you to know. Migraine carries the stigma of being just a bad headache, but migraine is actually a complicated neurological disease that comes with many more symptoms than head pain. In addition to intense pain, attacks often come with nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, difficulty thinking or concentrating, difficulty finding words, slurred speech, dizziness, sensitivity to light, sound, smells and more. And for some with variant forms of migraine like vestibular migraine & hemiplegic migraine, sensitivity to movement, busy environments, vertigo and even temporary loss of motor functions can occur.

What those with migraine want their employers to know

 In addition to desperately wanting to overcome stigma & wanting true understanding of how debilitating migraine disease can be, we want you to know…

  • We are worried about our reputation & how we’re seen by others. Migraine disease makes us very aware of stigma and we know many are skeptical & believe migraine doesn’t warrant time off.
  • We are not pretending to need accommodations. Migraine is an invisible illness, but carries a very real impact in all areas of our life not just our workplace.
  • We are worried about reduced pay, being dismissed, being overlooked for promotions or being seen as a complicated employee.
  • Migraine sometimes impacts work performance and sometimes doesn’t. We are not pretending on the days we can’t do something we might have been able to do the day before.
  • Those living with migraine are still committed to being a team player and an effective & efficient employee.
  • We understand migraine impacts you as well and reduced productivity and missed days affect your economic and goal oriented outcomes. We deeply wish we could reduce its impact on those around us.
  • Over the counter medications work for some, but not others. Many of us we can’t pop an over the counter pain medication and move on with our day unaffected by our migraine attacks.
  • We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for help minimizing our triggers which comes with the tradeoff of increased productivity, fewer days missed and more importantly fewer days worked ineffectively through our migraine attacks.

How employers can help those with migraine

When you do reach out to your supervisor or Human Resources contact it’s important to remember you are not required to give specific details about your health. It may be helpful to obtain a letter from your doctor to explain your needs. They write letters like this often and are skilled in the art of protecting your privacy while still communicating your needs.

It’s also important to remember that the law is very vague. Your employer may be required to provide reasonable accommodations for you, but what’s reasonable to them may be interpreted very differently than what’s reasonable to you. So be specific in asking for the things that can help you to create a work environment that is supportive to help you preform your job effectively. Typically, these are things that reduce the negative impact of migraine by reducing trigger exposure. So when asking for accommodations, consider triggers like light, noise, odors, air quality etc. Consider impact of stress, accessibility to flexible time off and frequent breaks as well.

Some reasonable accommodations to request could be…

  • Adding anti-glare, blue light blocking sheets to your monitor. Or you can try adding software to your computer like f.lux.  F.lux makes the color of your computer’s display automatically adapt to the time of day to reduce glaring monitors. It can also be set to the warmest colors and least blue light, usually seen at night, all day if that is preferred.
  • Many of us struggle with overhead lights. Ask for florescent bulbs to be removed in the area over your desk and use desk lamps instead. Adding fluorescent light covers can also help to reduce the harsh effect. With either of these options adding desk lamps with soft lighting helps. A workspace close in proximity to natural lighting is a great accommodation as well.
  • Your employer may not be able to provide you with a private office, but they may be able to move your cubicle to a quieter area of the office that’s out of traffic. Consider asking to be in proximity to the areas of your workplace that offer calm.
  • Providing an ergonomically correct work station that supports proper posture and neck support. One that allows movement like a desk top that transitions easily to standing is a nice option too.
  • Flexible break times with quiet areas or time for movement.
  • Ask for a reduced schedule.
  • Consider work from home options.
  • Flexibility in schedule to allow for doctor’s appointments, therapy or vestibular rehabilitation therapy.
  • If air quality is an issue allowing the use of an air purifier made to clean large indoor areas can be very helpful. After trying and loving this air purifier made by Shark I bought it for my home as well.

Who is required to pay for accommodations at work?

Know that in some cases you will be required to purchase the items you need for your accommodation. Your workplace accommodation will simply be your employer approving your use of them. In other cases, generous employers will purchase items for you along with approving your use of them in the workplace.

Consider a rescue plan

For those with rarer or variant forms of migraine like hemiplegic or vestibular migraine, symptoms can look frightening. Hemiplegic migraine may cause temporary loss of motor function and vestibular migraine can cause vertigo, dizziness & imbalance. Symptoms like this can be interpreted differently by co-workers and compromise your safety by making you a very real fall risk. Talk with your supervisor or human resources about a rescue plan to educate them on how to help you. Just remember they’re not doctors so try not to present your needs as a patient. Instead take charge, keep explanations short & create a clear plan of action for ways they can help you when you can’t communicate it yourself.

Going over and above

Conscientious employers may also consider creating a fragrance free workplace. With one in 10 employees suffering from migraine and many more with other conditions that make them sensitive to fragrance and other workplace chemicals, eliminating them by creating policies asking all employees to refrain from wearing perfume or cologne, or at least openly spraying them in shared work spaces can have a positive impact on job performance, days missed and your economic bottom line. Fragrance free policies should consider times when office upkeep processes (like painting over scuffed walls or spraying for pests) are completed as well. Avoiding these tasks while the office is bustling to support odor and chemical sensitive employees can really help.

Stressful work environments decrease employee productivity. Creating a healthy atmosphere that is comfortable, calming, supportive and empathetic boosts overall office morale for everyone, not just those with migraine. Making a few small changes like adding indoor plants, access to exercise during the days or quiet spaces for employees to move to when needed is an incredibly low investment with low effort that can go a long way to ensure all employees feel supported & to increase productivity. That’s a pretty great trade off.

Essential Strategies for Coping with Migraine at Work We Love

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About the Author

Jennifer Bragdon

I was diagnosed with Vestibular Migraine in 2016 and my neurotologist added a Ménière’s Disease mild diagnosis in 2018. I went from being housebound for months to working full time and living an active full life by following the Migraine Strong treatment pie. Preventive medications, the Heal Your Headache Diet and supplements do a lot of the heavy lifting in relieving my symptoms. You can also find me over on The Dizzy Cook blog baking yummy head safe goodies on a guest post each month.

View all posts by Jennifer Bragdon