Migraine Attacks at Work: To Tell or Not Tell?

October 1, 2016

shutterstock_165949325Experiencing Migraine attacks are painful anywhere you are. But when in a professional environment, you may not have the option to treat it as you usually do. You may even have deadlines for projects with a strict due date that day – which may have been your migraine trigger in the first place.

Every office setting is stressful at one point or another. But when suffering from migraine and anxiety it will occur at work makes a stressful environment one ripe with triggers. Online there is a good amount of information regarding how best to deal with migraine onset at work. The advice include standard practices migraine sufferers may be well acquainted with. But there’s another issue at hand in which the advice is varied, at best. How should you handle communicating your migraine at work? Is it unprofessional, make job security vulnerable, or is it in fact the place to be very open about your condition? What is the best practice?

But there’s another issue addressed which isn’t as straight-forward: how should you handle communicating your migraine to people at work? Is it unprofessional to do so, will it make your job security vulnerable, or is it the best time to be open about the condition? What do the experts suggest are Best Practices?  Lets look at three examples. Hopefully, you’ll see the problem.

  1. Paula K. Dumas on Migraine Again has a post of 7 ways to deal with migraine at work. Her first two points are “Don’t Advertise” and “Educate Selectively.” The reasoning is understandable. Stigma still exists concerning migraine. Being too open about it may, according to Dumas, invite a lower professional opinion of you, bringing such damning opinions as your lack of commitment, using it as an excuse, or worse, that you’re “lazy.” 
  2. Then there’s “lead expert” Teri Robert’s post on HealthCentral. While she agrees with Dumas about existing stigmas, she takes the exact opposite approach toward dealing with it. She encourages one to “be their best advocate,” and to take the opportunity to “educate your boss and co-workers about migraine.” She stresses migraine is a disease many people don’t recognize. Further, your health is crucial to job performance, and it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to perform at peak level with migraine.
  3. Finally, Lisa Zamosky on WebMD, in a more subdued, medical tone, take more of a middle road. First, it seems significant to point out that Zamosky, as opposed to the other two, doesn’t address this issue until the reader is well into the article.  This seems to be a subtle shift of focus from “business ethics” to “medical advice,” but that is conjecture. Regardless, Zamosky states first “Generally, it’s a good idea to keep your personal life separate from work life.”  However, she continues, “But if you’ve tried to quietly remove migraine triggers from work, and it’s not working…it may be time to let your boss and/or co-workers know about your migraines.” In addition, she also wisely addresses performance reviews, “keep in mind your upcoming job performance review. If migraines cause the quality of your work to suffer but your supervisor doesn’t know about your condition, your performance evaluations can take a hit.”

Advice Synopsis

  • Advice #1: Be conservative. Keep it on the down-low as much as possible for your professional protection
  • Advice #2: Be a vocal advocate for your disease. Communicate to others what you’re dealing with, so the issue can continue gaining validity
  • Advice #3: Try to find ways to avoid triggers and to prepare for migraine first. But if they come in regular attacks, and are of a certain severity, it could be a disadvantage not talking to your supervisor about it, if she/he judges your performance without knowing what is crippling you.

And the Winner is…
…all and none. What? All of them may be either applicable or detrimental. Which one, then, do you choose? Well, it’s dependent on a number of factors. Here are some that are important for making your decision.

Awareness of Environment
It’s important to assess and understand the “office politics” and tenor of your workplace.

  • Is it fast-paced?
  • Is it a small family company that treats employees as such?
  • Is there an emphasis on pace and deadlines?
  • Is the pace relaxed, centered more on accuracy than timeline?
  • How big is your department?

You get the idea. Having a sense of the big picture will inform your handling of the situation.

Work Dynamic Among Colleagues
Along with environment, the nature of your working relationships are equally important: especially your supervisor. Colleague relationships are different for each person. The manager is an important player since she/he is often the one who sets the tone. But it’s not just the manager. Ask yourself:

  • Do you have a passive aggressive email correspondence, say, with a colleague influential enough to jeopardize your job?
  • Does the communication flow easily in your department or is there a lot of secrecy and lack of it?

It’s interesting how little attention these dynamics are given in a work environment. Speaking of…

The Effectiveness of Work Communication 
Effective, efficient, and professional communication can be the key to your dilemma. Maybe your manager is not a good communicator, for example.

  • Are you able to “manage up”? – come to their office, voice a concern or issue in such a way it’s neither threatening, subordinate, or unprofessional?
  • Is there a lot of gossip in your office?

These are considerations for everyone, but for migraine sufferers, it seems these points should be worked on *before* a migraine attack hits. At that point, it would be hard to think of anything.

Work and Stress
Most jobs contain some level of stress, and you can control only so much as an employee. However, taking precautions to limit stress, how you react to stress, as well as developing those items above, the hope is that when you experience another migraine attack, your normal painful suffering won’t be exacerbated by anxiety over things you *can* control.

The decision is ultimately yours. Try to make, though, a balanced one. Take into account not only your career, but your health. This you *do* have control over. Take care of yourself. Your condition is a real one and requires real treatment. Pretending it’s not there won’t make anything better.

Your condition is real, the pain is real, requiring real treatment. The worst you can decide is pretend it’s not there. Now *that* decision is a bad one. It will benefit neither your career or your health. 

Take care of yourself, ok?


  1. Dumas, Paula K. ‘7 Strategies to Survive A Migraine at Work || Migraine Again’. December 1, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2016. http://migraineagain.com/7-strategies-manage-migraine-at-work/.
  2. Robert, Teri. ‘Understand, Advocate, Make Changes, Be Alert, Educate’. 2016. Accessed October 1, 2016. http://www.healthcentral.com/migraine/tools-218716-5.html.
  3. Zamosky, Lisa. ‘Migraines at Work: Prevention, Time Off, Office Politics, and More’. 2005. Accessed October 1, 2016. http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/features/migraines-and-work.


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