What to Do When You Have a Migraine at Work

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Forty-seven percent of workers who suffer from migraines believe they have held them back in their careers, according to migraine-treatment company Cove. In a survey of almost 1,000 individuals, Cove found numerous startling statistics, including:

• One in seven people and one in five women suffer from migraines

• Thirty percent of people suffering from migraines don’t disclose their conditions at work because they fear that they won’t be taken seriously

• Sixty perfect of respondents don’t even tell their managers

• Only 20% of people who have disclosed their condition to their human resources departments actually received accommodations

With so many people affected by migraines — including migraines at work — it’s clear that the condition is a huge problem. If you’re among the many people in the world impacted by migraines, what can you do if one strikes at work? How do you broach the topic with your employer? And how can you get the accommodations you need to do your job?

Is a migraine considered a disability?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), having a migraine may qualify as a disability, meaning your employer may not discriminate against you — meaning make employment considerations, such as hiring, firing or promoting you — because of your migraines. Furthermore, it must provide reasonable accommodations to you to help you do your job while suffering from a migraine.

In order for your condition to qualify, it must significantly affect your ability to do your job, such that you are unable to complete work-related responsibilities routinely because of your migraines. You may also be eligible to receive Social Security Disability Insurance if you meet the requirements as established by the Social Security Administration.

Can you get a sick note for migraines?

While there are no legal requirements regarding giving sick notes for migraines, most physicians will likely be willing to write you one if your migraine is debilitating and rendering you incapable of going into the office or doing work. Although not mandated by federal law, many employers give their employees a certain number of paid sick days that they can also use to take time off for migraines, although if your migraines are frequent, you may want to discuss the situation with your employer to see what accommodations they can make for you.

Asking for accommodations. 

As we’ve discussed, if your migraines are considered a disability, you’re entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA. That means accommodations that won’t impose “undue hardship” to the employer. (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission goes into more detail here.) Even if your condition isn’t considered a disability, some employers may be willing to work with you anyway. 

Either way, if you need certain accommodations, such as access to a dark room or the ability to work from home when a migraine strikes — even additional time off — you should discuss the subject with your company’s human resources department. Explain your condition, including triggers and how they can best help you. Describe how working with a migraine can affect your productivity. Many employers will be more than willing to help valued employees. In other cases, you may need to talk to your physician about providing evidence of your condition to persuade your employer.

Keep in mind that you will probably need to discuss the topic with your HR department and in many cases involve your manager as well. Especially if your migraines are a disability, the condition will need to be documented. Do your best to work with your employer on coming to a satisfactory solution — one that works for both of you.

Why do I only get headaches at work?

Some factors make headaches (which are, of course, not the same thing as migraines) more common at work. Triggers include:

• Bright lights, including those from your phone and computer screen

• The stress of your work

• Lack of sleep and fatigue

• Not eating meals

• Caffeine or alcohol withdrawl

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine also found that psychological factors, including workplace bullying and an isolating environment, may trigger headaches at work, too.

How can I relieve a migraine?

Migraines can feel crippling, but there are some ways to address them before they get the best of you. Here are some steps to take to help relieve a migraine.

1. Take anti-nausea or pain-relief medication as soon as you start to experience symptoms. 

Even ibuprofen or aspirin can help. Before starting a new medication, talk to your doctor and try it out in the privacy of your own home before taking it at work. But avoid medications with sedatives so you don’t fall asleep at work.

2. Drink plenty of water at all times.

Dehydration can trigger migraines and headaches, so keep sipping. 

3. Take a break. 

Heading outside for a walk around the block will give you access to some much-needed fresh air. If you have access to a dark room — a conference room that’s not currently being used or a personal office, for instance — see if you can lie down for a bit.

4. Avoid overdoing the caffeine.

This is another possible migraine trigger for some people. At the same time, if you’re used to coffee and skip it, that can also lead to a migraine.

5. Use a cold compress.

Put it on your forehead or neck — wherever it’s most helpful.

6. Watch your diet — and remember to eat.

Foods that are high in salt and sugar can trigger you by leading to dehydration. Don’t skip meals, though. Hunger can also prompt a migraine.

7. Massage your temples.

This can provide some pain relief. 

8. Notice your triggers.

Become cognizant of what sets you off — certain odors or foods, skipping breakfast, having your screen too bright, hearing the noises of construction outside or what have you. Do your best to minimize these triggers. For example, see if you can dim your screen.

9. Take care of your mental health.

Mental and physical health are closely connected. If you’re experiencing frequent migraines, it could be related to anxiety or stress, for instance. If you’re concerned about your psychological well-being or others have expressed concern, seek the help of a therapist or another form of support. Taking care of your mental health can also help you address your physical health.

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