Migraine as a Coworker

Written by Ben Ruditsky | January 18, 2024

Having migraine as a coworker can be challenging. None of us are strangers to calling out of work for one reason or another. Whether this was a more frequent occurrence at some of our first low-level jobs, or out of necessity at our current job, it’s something we’ve all experienced at some point. For those of us with migraine, however, the issue of calling out can look a little different. Have you ever called out of your job due to a migraine, but used a different ailment as an excuse instead of stating the actual reason? I’ve felt compelled to do this many times, and have had to out of necessity even more. Migraine is recognized as the #1 neurological disability globally and the 3rd most prevalent disease in the world. Yet, many in the workforce don’t take it as seriously as they should.

It’s Just a Headache, You’ll be Fine!

If I had a dollar for every time a supervisor or manager at a job hit me with “It’s just a headache, you’ll be fine!” or “Just take some Advil or something.” I probably wouldn’t need to be working in the first place. There is a frustratingly common stigma that I and many others have experienced in the workplace. Often that stigma is from managers and coworkers alike, namely the myth: migraine attacks are common to the point of not being a serious ailment, and therefore should not serve as a good reason to call out.

In one study with almost 200,000 U.S. workers, only 22 percent believed that migraine was a justifiable enough excuse to call out of work. It’s numbers like these that lead people to often cover up the reason for their absences, with over half of those who call out sick from work with migraine attacks not disclosing the real reason, often blaming something else instead.

The Frustration of Quantifiable Suffering

Man with headache in the workplaceThe problem lies in how migraine presents itself to others; or rather, that it doesn’t. Suffering from a cold or nausea is a much more tangible experience of illness. Those around you can witness coughing fits, watery eyes, or even throwing up should they be unlucky enough. However, migraine is invisible to all but the victim, making it easy to dismiss and not be taken seriously. The only source from which others can measure your symptoms and pain is through word of mouth, which some can view as unreliable in a situation where they may view that exaggeration as something that benefits you.

Mistrust Surrounding Migraine

In a survey of a sample of 2,000 US participants without migraine who knew at least one person with migraine, 32.4 percent thought that people with migraine were exaggerating their symptoms, and 29 percent said that people with migraine made things difficult for their coworkers. Another 31.1 percent answered that people use migraine as an excuse to get out of school or work commitments. While these numbers are not in the majority, they are large enough to show that many in the workplace don’t believe migraine is a disease that should be taken seriously. These results also beg the question: what percentage of these people are supervisors? What percentage of them are in management? It may only be a few percentage points, but that’s still enough to foster hostile work environments for those who struggle with migraine attacks.

Put the Responsibility for Change on Those in Power

It’s hard to combat these preexisting biases as an individual. The best course of action is to urge those with more pull to make the necessary changes. There are a multitude of laws in place to protect employees with disabilities. Migraine very much fits in that category. Hold your employer accountable for training leadership in proper handling of migraine as a disability. Communicate with your coworkers and peers about migraine and how it impacts you. You could even suggest to your higher ups to make education about disabilities include more information about seemingly less tangible ones such as migraine.

In addition, since migraine is a disability that is covered by the ADA, there are accommodations you can formally request from your employer. It is always best to put those in writing, and to have a doctor’s letter backing you up. For more information on workplace accommodations, visit Migraine at Work.  In short, communicating about migraine attacks within the workplace is the first step. Let’s reduce the stigma that surrounds them, and make the workplace a better and more migraine-friendly environment.


Let Us Know

What is your experience with migraine as a coworker? Have you taken any kind of initiative in the workplace about migraine awareness? Have you experienced mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace as a result of your migraine? What did you do to combat it?

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9237352/

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