Managing Migraine at Work: Strategies for Success

Written by Lorene Alba | February 19, 2024

According to the American Headache Society, nearly 113 million workdays are lost each year due to migraine. The work environment can be full of migraine triggers that we cannot control. So what is the best way to manage migraine at work?

Identify Migraine Triggers at Work

The first step in preventing and/or reducing migraine at work is to identify the triggers present at your job. There are a few common migraine triggers that are easy to find at work, such as:

  • Strong scents from perfume and cologne, cleaning products like bleach, air fresheners, and fresh flowers
  • Bright light that is harsh, including fluorescent lighting, sunshine from windows or working outside, and computer screens
  • Loud sounds or background noise
  • Stress and anxiety

What to Do if You Get a Migraine at Work

Man sitting at desk in office with migraineWhen migraine strikes at work, you want to act fast. Use the tools in your migraine treatment toolbox to help:

  • Take your migraine medications at the first sign of symptoms
  • Use any FDA-cleared medical devices or therapies (ice packs, heating pads, noise cancelling earbuds, etc) as soon as possible
  • Retreat to a dark, quiet place if you can, even if it is just for 15-20 mins
  • Stay hydrated
  • Practice any relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindful thinking, or rubbing your neck or temples to reduce pain

Steps to Prevent a Migraine at Work

The best way to manage migraine at work (and home) is to prevent the attack from happening in the first place.

  • Stick to a schedule: Following the same schedule everyday (sleep, eating, exercising) can help prevent migraine attacks. It’s helpful to keep the same schedule on your days off, too.
  • Go to bed earlier: Waking up early to get your kids ready for school before you go to work can cause migraine symptoms, especially if you didn’t sleep well the night before. Give yourself plenty of time in the morning to pack lunches, grab a coffee, and start your day with less stress.
  • Eat and drink regularly: Eating food that is as healthy as possible and staying hydrating can help avoid an attack.
  • Give your eyes a break: If you are working on a computer, talk with your eye doctor about anti-glare prescription prism glasses. Every 15 minutes or so, look away from your computer and focus your eyes somewhere else.
  • Give your body a break: If you can, get up and move around 15 minutes every hour, even if it’s just standing and stretching at your work station.
  • Follow your migraine action plan: Everyone living with migraine disease should have an action plan. This written plan tells you which medication and/or medical device to use, when to take them, and how frequently they should be used to prevent, reduce, or stop migraine attacks. Remember to take all medications and medical devices as directed by your doctor!

Following the above tips can also help reduce “migraine brain.”

Creating a Migraine-Friendly Workplace

Creating a migraine- and headache-friendly workplace is not difficult. With a few easy accommodations, people living with migraine can reduce attacks at work. And, these accommodations may create a more productive workplace for people without migraine as well.

1. When Should You Talk to Your Boss About your Migraine?

If and when you tell your supervisors or coworkers about your disease is up to you. Many workers feel that letting their employer know they have an illness may impact their current employment or future opportunities.  None of us want to be perceived as the co-worker who cannot keep up with their workload.

On the other hand, when you share with your boss or coworkers how your work environment impacts your migraine disease, they can help create a migraine-friendly environment. This helpful guide from Migraine at Work can help you decide if and when you want to let your employer know about your disease, and how to frame the conversation.

2. Reasonable Workplace Accommodations for Migraine

Disabling migraine attacks are considered a disability under the American Disabilities Act, and there are many workplace accommodations that can be requested. Below are a few easy ways employers can create a migraine-friendly workplace. If you would like to ask reasonable workplace accommodations, you can use this form created by Migraine at Work.

  • Reduce harsh lighting: People with headache disorders often experience light sensitivity. Using desk lamps instead of overhead lighting, removing or turning off a few fluorescent lightbulbs so the lights aren’t so bright, keeping shades down to reduce bright sunshine are inexpensive ways to reduce this headache trigger. Allowing headache lamps (like this Allay lamp), using dark mode on computer and phone screens, or adding a light filter to your computer can also make a big difference.
  • Allow workers to wear migraine pain reducing items: Employees should be allowed to wear migraine glasses or hats to reduce bright light and glare. If a worker is experiencing a migraine during their shift, they should have permission to wear a medical device, a migraine cap, heating pad, or ice pack. Noise-cancelling ear plugs/buds, or letting workers listen to calming music or apps while working, can also reduce the number of attacks they experience or help stop an attack that has already started.
  • Create and enforce fragrance-free policies: Personal care products, candles or air fresheners, as well as cleaning supplies, not only trigger a migraine attack, but they can trigger asthma attacks and chemical sensitivities, too. Everyone will breathe easier in a scent-free workplace.
  • Let employees work from home/remotely (if possible): Employees with migraine that work from home will more than likely take fewer sick days than those who work out of the home. When working from home, they can administer treatments in a safe environment. They can better manage triggers and symptoms from home, and therefore be more productive, reducing not only absenteeism but also presenteeism.

Know your Rights

This introduction to the American’s With Disabilities Act can help you better understand your rights. Also, make sure you understand your employer’s sick time policy and follow its requirements.

Let us know! Do you deal with migraine at work? Have you asked for and received reasonable accommodations? How can the workplace be more migraine-friendly?

Leave a Comment