Millions of workdays are lost every year due to migraine. A supportive workplace can make a very big difference in terms of minimising your attacks, and helping you stay in work.

One of the most difficult challenges people living with migraine have is accepting the idea of migraine as an invisible disability, and feeling confident enough in identifying themselves as disabled so they can then ask for reasonable accomodations. Unfortunately, many with migraine do the opposite, concealing their condition from their employers because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

Telling your employer

Whether to disclose your migraine to your employer is a tough call, and a very personal one. But, if you disclose your condition with the right supports and plans in place, it then gives you the protection of anti-discrimination law. And, your employer can’t help you if they don’t know.

Here’s some tips to help the conversation, get your doctor to write a letter explaining your diagnosis. The letter should include what kind of migraine you have, what the symptoms are, and what accomodations you may require.

Read your employer’s sick leave, equity and diversity, and OH&S policies carefully. Know what your employer requires in terms of documentation for leave, the availability of flexible working arrangements or hours, and what is required of you to manage your absences.

Talk to your union, if you are a member, so they are aware of your condition and can help you inform your employer. A union rep may accompany you to a meeting, or they may help you prepare documents.

Then, when you’re ready, make an appointment with HR and your manager to discuss your migraine, and develop a workplace management plan. Be confident and clear that it should not affect your work if you can manage your migraine effectively.

Reasonable accommodations

‘Reasonable accomodations’ is a term used to describe alterations to work environments or schedules to allow for disability and serious illness. Think about the kinds of things you can change that would make it easier for you to manage your migraine at work. This may be things to avoid triggers, or to help you manage attacks.

For example: If there is a light over your desk that is too bright, or one in your eyeline that flickers, ask for the light to be turned off or removed, or move your desk position. If it is natural light, you can ask for a blind or curtain. If you are particularly triggered by smells, you can discuss a low-smell policy for the office (usually a request to fellow staff not to wear strong perfumes, or bring smelly lunch foods into the office). Or, if you are often affected by light or noise sensitivity, but any headache or other symptom is not significant enough to require you to go home, talk to your employer about using earplugs or wearing sunglasses at work so you can keep working.

There are things about your work station you can change, like asking for a glare filter for your computer monitor, or a document holder so you don’t have to look down. If your workplace is large enough, ask for an OH&S assessment so you can talk through what you need with a qualified officer, who can also inform you about other tools that may be available for you. Correct posture is also important to stop neck tension, which can be a trigger, so ensure your chair is supportive and properly set up.

If you want the ability to work flexibly, whether it is to work at home on bad days, or make up lost time on the weekends, think it through carefully and have a plan of how you will make it work (such as keeping a timesheet) before meeting with your employer. This will help give them confidence the work will be done. Time off for medical appointments, not requiring a medical certificate for migraine absences, or additional sick leave, are also things that can be negotiated.

Shorter, more frequent breaks (for example, three 20 minute breaks instead of a lunch hour) is a reasonable thing to ask for if that will help you. If there is a quiet room or similar (such as a room used by breast feeding mothers), ask for access to that room to rest for a short period if you need it.

IMPORTANT: Document everything. Keep a diary and your own notes of any discussions you have about your migraine management. Send an email after meetings thanking them for the meeting, and the dot points of what you have agreed on. Keep a file with any emails or other documentation about your migraine management so it is all together. If things go wrong, you will need the paper trail.

Further information

Migraine Australia is currently developing resources to help both employers and employees create migraine friendly workplaces. Please check back soon.

The following links are to overseas resources, but may be helpful while we work on developing Australian ones.

The Migraine Trust – Help at Work https://www.migrainetrust.org/living-with-migraine/asking-for-support/help-at-work/

American Migraine Foundation – Migraine at work (requires registration) https://info.americanmigrainefoundation.com/migraine-at-work-download

Healthline – 9 Useful Hacks for Managing a Migraine Attack at Work https://www.healthline.com/health/migraine/hacks-for-migraine-at-work#1