Migraines and the Workplace

September 14, 2015

shutterstock_295186424According to the National Headache Foundation, around 28 million Americans suffer from migraines, and an estimated 14 million people suffer from undiagnosed migraines.1 That’s a whole lot of people – we can safely assume that many of them work.

But how do you work with a migraine headache? According to many studies, you don’t. Studies vary widely according to region and type of population studied, but it is safe to say that millions of workdays are lost to headaches, and many more work hours are lost due to a worker suffering through a migraine without taking time off. This, obviously, is a terrible situation for both the employer and the employee. An employee without health benefits may be forced into sacrificing pay, and an employee with benefits may be forced to spend part of their vacation allotment suffering. For employers, it’s a lose-lose: spend money, get no work. So what should we do about migraines at work?

 Tell Your Employers and Co-workers about Your Condition

 First of all, if you do not suffer from migraines, empathy and compassion mandate that you act with sensitivity toward those who suffer. But if you do suffer from migraines, you do have options. First and foremost, suffering silently and keeping your condition a secret is not a good strategy. As you know, many migraines are triggered by any number of factors – from loud noise to noxious smells. If you kindly and respectfully let your co-workers know that their popcorn or jazz music, to use two examples, can trigger your migraine, perhaps they would be willing to play their music or eat their popcorn when you are not present.

But letting your co-workers and employers know you suffer from migraines is important for another reason: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) effectively covers those who suffer from migraines.

The ADA and Migraines

The ADA, passed in 1990 and updated in 2008, mandates that “reasonable accommodations” be made to anyone who suffers from chronic or intermittent pain-causing conditions. This “reasonable accommodations” language has been used successfully on behalf of migraine sufferers, meaning there is legal precedent should a conflict between employer and employee arise. To put this into concrete terms: if you suffer from migraines and ask that a co-worker not play her jazz music or eat his popcorn near you because it may trigger a migraine attack, your workplace is legally obliged to accommodate your request, a request that is—we should add—completely reasonable.2

Other accommodations may be made in the form of time off work, telecommuting, or non-traditional work hours. To read more about the ADA and migraines, please see this very helpful blog {http://www.healthcentral.com/migraine/c/11175/68921/disabilities-act/}.

Please note: if you do not tell your employer or co-workers about your condition, they cannot be expected—legally or otherwise—to accommodate your requests.

Migraines are awful, and having to work with migraines is even worse. But for many, there is not much choice in the matter. At least you now know that laws are in place to help relieve your suffering—or avoid it—as much as possible.

  1. Job Accommodation Network. Accomodation and compliance series: employees with migraine headaches. Accessed September 2, 2015: https://askjan.org/media/Migraine.html
  1. Oltman M. Working with migraines: rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.       Health Central. May 4, 2009.



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