The impact of headache and migraine disorders is well-documented. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, more than 157 million workdays are lost in the United States, and health care and decreased productivity costs total $37 billion yearly. Lost workdays do not necessarily mean absences. Presenteeism describes the state of being at work, but not fully functioning. This could be due to the severity of the headache as well as the associated symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, light and sound sensitivity, or brain fog. This loss of functionality could also be due to the effects of the medications taken to treat the acute headache attack.
In the report, “Migraine in America 2019,” by Health Union, 93% of those experiencing migraine noted that the disease impacts their ability to work. Migraine has negatively affected careers by thwarting advancement or preventing the individual from performing daily tasks. There is also the stigma associated with having a chronic, disabling condition. Many people with a headache disorder try to conceal it. They may call in sick with a different excuse: “I have the flu; my child (parent, spouse) is ill.” These affected individuals may go so far as to avoid submitting claims associated with their headache condition.
So how can we stop this situation?
Remember knowledge is power and you need to educate your bosses and your colleagues. It is a daunting task, but there are over 40 million headache sufferers in the U.S., so everyone knows someone affected by headaches.
First, be upfront with your supervisor and colleagues. If they want to understand the information about headache and migraine disorders, provide them educational materials. Many of the advocacy organizations have brochures detailing the various headache and migraine diseases. You can also print fact sheets that are provided on the various headache organization websites.
Once you have educated them, you should discuss any needed accommodations at work. That is your right. It may be as simple as changing the lighting in your workspace. Fluorescent lights can be a trigger for a headache attack so address that problem with your supervisor. Ask if the lighting can be changed in the office and if not, if you can be moved to an area that is not as bright. The nuances of the computer screen can also be troubling for those with migraine disease. Ask for a filter for your computer screen and explore the various eyeglasses available for headache sufferers which utilize the correct shading to prevent these types of headache.
If perfumes and other odors are triggers for your headache attacks, discuss the matter with the supervisor and/or the human resources department. The supervisor can instruct your colleagues not to wear colognes and other scents at the workplace. If it is not just in your particular office, HR should make it a company-wide policy. You should not have to take the chance of a headache just because you need to go to another area in your workplace.
Do you have a headache rescue kit at your desk or in your briefcase?
These kits usually contain your medications as well as an ice pack, eye mask, and/or earplugs. You should keep a list of your medications in the kit as well as emergency numbers in case you are sidelined with an attack at work. Who should be called if you cannot drive? Do you need someone to pick up your children if you are not able to drive to the school, etc.? Let your colleagues know that you have the kit, and where it is located. Preparing your coworkers and supervisors about your needs will only benefit you at the time of an attack. Also, maintain regular meal schedules as much as possible. If you can’t break for lunch, keep snacks with you to prevent those fasting headaches. And keep hydrated – those with migraine disease are especially impacted by dehydration. You should also not overdo your caffeine intake. Too many cups of coffee, tea, or caffeinated beverages may affect your headache status.
Perhaps, you recover from your headaches in a few minutes or hours. Is there an area where you could rest until the attack finishes? Many employers have installed rooms for nursing moms to pump while they are at work. Would there be a quiet, dark area where you could stay until the pain and the associated symptoms abate? It may just be a couch in the restroom where you could recover. This simple accommodation should be appreciated by your supervisor as you would not have to leave work because of the attack, and the impact on your productivity would be lessened.
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is that many types of work can be accomplished remotely. As we return to our old schedules and routines, talk with your supervisor about flexible hours and/or working remotely. If you can complete your tasks and participate in virtual meetings, this would be a no-brainer.
Many of these recommendations cannot be accomplished in certain occupations.
Our first responders cannot ask for these accommodations but they can educate their colleagues and supervisors. For instance, a nurse at Lurie Children’s Hospital told me that if any member of her team is experiencing a migraine attack at work, they will tell the other team members that they are going to the chapel. The chapel is one area of the hospital that is not lit by fluorescent lights and is quiet. A few minutes rest in the chapel may help the nurse return to the floor. For those working outside trying to find a dark and quiet place is impossible, that is why educating those around you is so vital.
websites have excellent tools for facing the problem of working with headache and migraine disease. And above all, practice and be your own advocate. You’ve got this!
by Mary Franklin
National Headache Foundation
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