When a Migraine Strikes at Work: An Action Plan

It helps to be on the same page with your employer.

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Every workplace is different, but it’d be a miracle to have a workplace that is totally free of migraine triggers. Many buildings have bright, fluorescent lights or flares from computer screens. You might have a coworker with strong perfume, or the bathroom has a potent air freshener. You might work around noisy machinery, or you might skip meals to attend an important meeting. Oh, and then there are those stressful deadlines. These things can make dealing with migraines at work very challenging.

While it may feel like you have no control over your work environment, you might not be powerless. “Sometimes it's important to talk to your doctor about having an action plan for your migraines when you go to work,” says Sylvia Mohen, MD, neurologist in New York City.

Why an Action Plan Can Help

Having an action plan can help in a number of ways. Frustratingly, the fear of getting a migraine at work can become a source of anxiety and a migraine trigger itself. For this reason, having an action plan for when a migraine strikes at work can empower you to feel more in control.

An action plan can also help you and your employer get on the same page. Of course, you’re not required to disclose personal health details at work, but it can be beneficial.

“We've definitely run into situations where somebody maybe needed to be moved to an office with less light, or moved away from a coworker who wore a really strong perfume,” says Dr. Mohen. This benefits everyone because if you can prevent migraines, you won’t need to take a bunch of days off.

What to Consider When Making a Plan

Your action plan will be unique to you and your work situation. To cover your bases, consider the following steps:

1. Talk to your boss or HR representative

This can help them better understand how your migraines affect you, how they can be supportive, and what you need to recover during a migraine. For example, during and after a migraine attack, you may benefit from being able to work from home for a day or two.

“I think it's important to talk to your human resources division about any protections put in place for workers who may need to take a little bit of sick time if you find your migraines are really causing you to have to take a few days off of work,” says Dr. Mohen.

2. Manage your workplace triggers

This may require you to advocate for yourself. For example, you may need to request to move desks to avoid bright light from a window or strong perfume from a coworker. You may need to get an anti-glare screen for your computer or tinted glasses.

As for stressful deadlines, planning ahead and working on time management skills may help. Always be honest with your supervisor about how long projects will take, or if you need more time.

3. Take action when you notice early migraine warning signs

“Some of the easiest things to do are maybe take a little break from what you're doing, maybe have a little snack if you're not too nauseous, have a little something to drink,” says Dr. Mohen. “Give yourself a little bit of time to rest. If you have one of your acute treatments on you, that might be the time to take it.”

Consider letting your supervisor know, in case you need to leave work. If so, find a way home, but avoid driving yourself. Migraine attacks can progress suddenly, so it may be dangerous to drive during a migraine. It may be better to get a ride from a taxi or a coworker instead.

“I think if you're really concerned that your migraines may be affecting your job, that's really a great time to touch base with a neurologist or a healthcare provider that has an expertise in migraine,” says Dr. Mohen. “There's a number of things we can do to decrease your overall migraine burden, to give you less overall headaches, and make it less likely that the migraines will interfere with your work.”