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Effective Strategies for Coping with Migraine at Workplace

11 min read
Last Updated on 10 July, 2024

Migraines are often an invisible foe. Unlike a broken arm or a bad cold, they don't always have outward signs. Yet, for millions of professionals, this debilitating condition wreaks havoc on their workday.

They are a leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting one in seven people and reaching peak prevalence during prime working years (ages 25-55). And despite impacting such a large portion of the workforce, migraines often go undiagnosed or dismissed as "just headaches."

This lack of awareness can lead to a cycle of presenteeism and missed opportunities for both employees and employers. The good news? By understanding the specific challenges migraines pose in the workplace, we can create a more supportive environment.

This blog will equip you with the knowledge and tools to navigate migraines at work. Whether you're a migraine sufferer yourself or a manager looking to support your team, this blog is your resource for conquering the migraine monster at work.

What is Migraine and What are its Types?

Migraine-at-work

A migraine is a neurological disorder that ranks among the most disabling illnesses globally. It affects an estimated one billion people worldwide, including about 39 million men, women, and children in the United States alone. Characterized by intense, debilitating headaches, migraines often come with a suite of symptoms, including:

  • Nausea,
  • Vomiting,
  • Visual disturbances (such as aura),
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or smells, and
  • Extreme fatigue.

People often get confused between headaches and migraines. Migraines are considered a neurological condition with symptoms beyond head pain. Headaches, on the other hand, are a symptom of something serious going on in one’s body; they are not a disease on their own.

Types of Migraine:

  1. Migraine with Aura: Previously called "classic migraines," migraine with aura includes visual disturbances like seeing shapes, light flashes, or even vision loss before the headache begins. The aura usually lasts between 20 to 60 minutes.

  2. Migraine without Aura: It is the most prevalent form of migraine, characterized by moderate to severe pulsating headache pain that can last from 4 to 72 hours if untreated. These migraines are typically accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light, sound, or odors, and general malaise.

  3. Chronic Migraine: This type is diagnosed when a person has 15 or more days of migraine headaches per month over 3 months.

  4. Hemiplegic Migraine: An uncommon type of migraine that can mimic a stroke, as it involves temporary paralysis or weakness on one side of the body. These migraines can be frightening due to their stroke-like symptoms, and thorough medical evaluation is necessary to rule out other causes.

  5. Vestibular Migraine: This type primarily affects the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance. Patients might experience dizziness or vertigo, typically associated with nausea and balance issues.

Stages of a Migraine Attack:

There are four distinct stages to a migraine attack, although not everyone experiences all four:

  1. Prodrome: Subtle changes one or two days before a migraine, including mood changes, food cravings, neck stiffness, increased thirst and urination, and constipation.

  2. Aura: Occurs before or during migraines, involving visual, sensory, motor, or verbal disturbances.

  3. Attack Phase: The peak of the migraine, which involves severe pain on one or both sides of the head, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting.

  4. Postdrome: After the attack, when the person may feel drained or washed out, though some report feeling mildly euphoric.

Stages of a migraine episode

Common Migraine Triggers

  • Stress: Often cited as one of the most common triggers for migraines, stress can cause hormonal and neurochemical fluctuations in the brain that lead to migraines.

  • Sensory Stimuli: Bright lights, loud noises, and strong odors (perfumes or strong food smells) are significant triggers.

  • Sleep Changes: Both too much and too little sleep can trigger migraines. Irregular sleep patterns and disturbances can exacerbate the frequency and severity of migraines.

  • Weather Changes: Changes in weather, especially barometric pressure fluctuations, can trigger migraines in some people.

  • Dietary Factors: Common dietary triggers include aged food like cheeses, alcohol (particularly red wine), caffeine (too much or withdrawal), chocolate, aspartame, and foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG).

  • Dehydration

  • Hormonal Changes: For some individuals, particularly women, changes in hormonal levels can trigger migraines. It can occur during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause.

These triggers are not universal and can vary widely among individuals with migraines. Identifying personal triggers through careful tracking and observation can help tackle and prevent migraine attacks.

How do Migraines affect Work Ability?

Migraines impact employee perfromance

Living with migraines is notorious not just for the pain they cause but for their knack for striking without warning. The unpredictability makes it challenging for sufferers to plan their workdays or meet deadlines, often leading to stress that can trigger yet another migraine.

It's a challenging cycle, with the World Health Organization estimating that migraines are the sixth highest cause worldwide of years lost due to disability.

The concept of "presenteeism"—being at work but working at a reduced capacity—is particularly relevant here. Research suggests that migraine sufferers can experience up to a 50% reduction in productivity when experiencing an attack, yet they might still attempt to work through the pain.

Furthermore, frequent absences or reduced productivity due to migraines can inadvertently slow down career progression. Employees with migraines might be overlooked for handling high-responsibility projects due to perceived unreliability caused by their health condition.

Effective Measures to Manage Migraines at Work

Effectively managing migraines in the workplace requires a combination of personal awareness, environmental adjustments, and proactive health strategies.

1. Identifying and Logging Personal Triggers:

One of the most effective ways to manage migraines is to identify and avoid known triggers. Every individual’s experience with migraines is unique, which means that the triggers can also vary widely.

By keeping a meticulous log of daily activities, food intake, emotional states, and environmental conditions, you can start to detect patterns and correlations unique to your migraine episodes.

Certain foods and additives are well-known migraine triggers. Foods like aged cheeses, processed meats, chocolate, and items containing MSG and artificial sweeteners may trigger migraines. By tracking your nutrition with Vantage Fit, you can identify any correlation between what you eat and the onset of migraines.

Logging your meals with Vantage fit to track the correlation between what you eat and the onset of migraines

2. Staying Hydrated and Eating on Time:

Dehydration and missed meals are common triggers for migraine attacks. Experts recommend drinking about 64 ounces (8 glasses) of water daily.

Also, regular balanced meals are crucial; skipping meals can drop blood sugar levels, triggering migraines. Balanced meals should include a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to ensure sustained energy levels.

tracking nutrition and logging water with vantage fit to avoid migraines

You can try keeping a record of your daily water intake and nutrition with Vantage Fit.

Below is a quick recipe that can be prepared ahead of time and is perfect for bringing to the office:

Quinoa and Chickpea Salad

3. Minimizing Exposures to Triggers:

Exposure to bright fluorescent lighting, loud sounds, and strong odours can trigger migraines for many people. If possible, adjust your workspace to minimize these triggers.

For light sensitivity, wearing specially tinted glasses designed to filter out harsh lighting can be a game-changer. Positioning your desk near a window can also help boost your mood. You can also use a desk lamp with a soft, warm bulb.

For noise sensitivity, nothing is more impactful than wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Whether you choose to play calming music, white noise, or simply use them to mute the surrounding din, they can help you create a personal space of quietness.

Resources: White noise, Rain Sounds
To combat strong odours, keeping a small air purifier/ plant at your desk can createing a fresher, more breathable space.

How to avoid migraine triggers at work

A simple conversation explaining your migraine triggers can also go a long way toward making your workspace comfortable.

4. Maintain Proper Posture

According to the American Migraine Foundation, leading a sedentary lifestyle with bad posture can trigger more frequent migraines.

To combat that, consider adjusting your workstation to promote good posture. Begin by adjusting your computer screen to eye level and ensuring your chair provides proper back support. You can also use ergonomic accessories like keyboard trays, footrests, or a standing desk to reduce physical strain.

In addition to these adjustments, incorporating recovery poses into your routine can prove to be very beneficial. Follow these steps if you sense the onset of a migraine:

  • Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and hands on your knees.
  • Inhale as you arch your back, tilt your pelvis forward, and look up towards the ceiling.
  • Allow your belly to drop towards the floor.
  • Exhale as you round your back, tuck your chin towards your chest, and tilt your pelvis back.
  • Draw your navel in towards your spine.
  • Continue moving between these two positions, synchronizing your breath with each movement. Repeat for several breaths.

A-woman-practicing-mindfulness-exercises-at-work-through-seated-cat-cow-stretch

5. Manage Stress

According to the American Headache Society, a staggering 80% of migraine sufferers identify stress as a major trigger for their attacks. It highlights the crucial role stress management plays in preventing migraines.

For instance, implementing the 20-20-20 rule — every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away—can help reduce eye strain and mental fatigue.

Additionally, short walks, even within the office, can improve circulation and provide a change of environment, which further helps lower stress levels.

Manage your time well to avoid work overload. Prioritize tasks using the Eisenhower Box, which divides tasks into four categories:

  • urgent and important,
  • important but not urgent,
  • urgent but not important, and
  • neither urgent nor important.

Eisenhower-Matrix

This method helps focus on what must be done, reducing the overwhelm that can trigger migraines. Moreover, tools like digital calendars or task management apps can help keep you on track with deadlines and appointments, ensuring that everything is managed in a timely manner.

Realistically speaking, stress cannot be avoided, it can only be managed. Take care of yourself, and your health will thank you.

6. Carry a Migraine Emergency Kit:

“Sometimes you can barely lift your head off a pillow, let alone make decisions during a meeting.”
– Dr. Nicole Shaffer, Senior Director, People Experience, Colleague Wellness at Pfizer.

Assemble a kit with essential items, including:

  • Medications: Keep your prescribed migraine medication readily accessible.
  • Cold Packs or Cooling Devices: These can be used to alleviate head pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Snacks and Water: Quick-energy foods like nuts or fruit bars and a water bottle can help stave off migraine triggers.

Experts’ Recommendation: Neck Ice Pack Wrap & Migraine Relief Cap

Remember, the aim is to cultivate a space that feels as good as it functions, ensuring that your health remains a priority even during the busiest of workdays.

How can Employers create a Migraine-Supportive Workplace?

Employers can help combat migraine symptoms by creating a migraine-supportive workplace

As employers, it's crucial to bust some myths about mental health. The invisibility of a condition does not negate its existence. Creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace is key, where everyone, no matter their condition, race, or ethnicity, feels valued and equal.

Moreover, organizations with a high prevalence of migraine sufferers might see elevated health insurance premiums. Below are some of the ways through which you can help create a migraine-supportive workplace and save on healthcare costs:

Educate

The first step in creating a migraine-supportive workplace is education. Employers can utilize online resources and educational materials to inform themselves and their staff about the realities of migraines.

Understanding relevant laws that protect individuals with migraines is crucial. Employers can enhance awareness by using staff well-being boards to display flyers and information on migraine management and workplace rights, ensuring that this critical information is accessible to all. Below are some of the laws:

a. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA provides that employees with disabilities, including those who experience severe or chronic migraines that substantially limit one or more major life activities, are entitled to reasonable accommodations. This might include modified work schedules, changes to the physical workplace, or the ability to work from home.

b. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA can be a vital resource for employees suffering from migraines requiring work leave. This federal law allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected annual leave for specific medical reasons, including severe migraines.

Employees qualify if they have completed at least 1,250 hours of work for their employer over the previous 12 months.

Implement Migraine-Preventive Wellness Programs and Resources

Vantage fit as a Migraine preventive wellness program that has mindfulness sessions

Wellness programs play a key role in preventive health and can be especially beneficial for managing migraines. Implementing programs such as Vantage Fit can encourage employees to engage in regular physical activity, mindfulness, and stress management—all of which can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.

Vantage Fit and similar resources provide employees with tools to track their health metrics, participate in wellness challenges, and maintain healthy habits that might mitigate migraine triggers.

Offer Flexible Work Options

Flexibility is key in accommodating employees with migraines. Flexible working hours and the option to work from home during a migraine attack can be a relief for those affected.

Such policies allow employees to work when they feel most capable and rest when the migraine symptoms flare up, without the stress of commuting or the pressure of a rigid schedule.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a whopping 87% of HR leaders believe that flexible work arrangements boost employee happiness.

It's about understanding that sometimes, rules need to bend a little for people to stay straight.

Foster Open Communication

Fostering open communication in a workplace helps combat migraine triggers

Employers should encourage an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their migraines and their impact on their work. When employees come forward with their health concerns, it’s crucial for managers to listen actively and then work collaboratively to find feasible solutions.

For instance, if an employee reports that the stress of tight deadlines often triggers migraines, managers can adjust project timelines or redistribute tasks within the team. The goal here is to accommodate the employee’s health needs without compromising the team's productivity.

Employers can also implement structured feedback mechanisms like regular health surveys, suggestion boxes, or digital platforms where employees can anonymously address their concerns and suggestions.

Modify Physical Workspaces

Creating a supportive workspace for employees with migraines starts with a few thoughtful adjustments/ resources. These could be:

  • Setting up adjustable lighting systems and providing lamps with dimmer controls.
  • Providing noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Offering a quiet room to employees as a place to retreat when they need to escape overstimulating environments and manage their symptoms in privacy.
  • Providing ergonomically correct workstations, such as adjustable chairs and desks, installing anti-glare screens, etc.

Provide Comprehensive Health Coverage

Modern migraine treatments extend beyond traditional medications. Including coverage for specialized consultations with neurologists as well as therapies like acupuncture can be a game-changer for employees.

Nutritional counseling is another critical component, as diet can significantly impact migraine occurrence.

By supporting employees in exploring various treatment avenues, employers can help them find the most effective methods for managing their condition.

Migraine patients often have co-existing mental health conditions. A study conducted by The American Migraine Foundation showed that nearly 60%, 50%, and 25% reported having anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD, respectively. So, offering psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral treatment can help alleviate the intensity of such conditions.

Resource: A webinar on The Relationship Between Migraine and Mental Health

Conclusion

Migraines are a real disability, though they don't often get the spotlight they deserve. It's important for employers to recognize this and be proactive in supporting employees who deal with migraines.

This isn’t just about doing what’s legally right; it’s about genuinely caring for your team and enriching your workplace culture. So, let's build work environments that are inclusive and supportive, making everyone feel valued and supported, no matter what their health challenges.

After all, a happy and healthy work environment is more productive and fulfilling for everyone involved.

“People with migraine are amongst the most resilient people I have ever met. I am really proud to have worked with migraine patients over the years, and they often helped show me ways to manage uncertain aspects of my own life.”
– Dr. Steven Baskin, Co-director of Behavioral Medicine Services at The New England Institute for Neurology and Headache

This article is written by Bijaya Lakshmi Sarma, a content marketer and wellness expert at Vantage Fit. As an avid runner for over a decade and a keen reader of books on holistic wellness, Bijaya aims to guide people toward lifestyle changes that help them surpass their wellness vision. To get in touch, reach out to editor@vantagecircle.com

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