Living With Migraines

How to Prevent Migraine From Getting in the Way of Your Career

If you’re one of the almost 15% of people in the world who suffer from migraine, then you know that they can be completely debilitating. Pushing through the pain is hard enough. But to work on top of that? Practically unthinkable.

We conducted a survey of almost 1000 people —including some Cove customers—and learned that many of them typically have to take five or more sick days a year because of migraine. On top of that, almost 50% feel like migraine has held them back from progressing in their careers, and 30% have had to turn down new opportunities because of it.

To learn a little bit more about how migraine can negatively impact an individual’s career, we spoke with some migraine sufferers about their own experience.

Before becoming a part-time freelance writer, Jessy P. used to work in retail. She had to stop working completely for quite a few years.

“It just got to the point in retail where I was calling [out of] work so much,” she shares. “I just felt like I was letting down my co-workers and management to the point where I had to make a switch.”

Cove customer America M., on the other hand, has been fired from over 20 jobs because she kept missing workdays due to migraine.

“As much as [my employers] understood what was happening,” America says, “it led to termination. They said there wasn’t anything I could do until I had some proof. It just led back to ‘this is a business.’ [And] if I’m not there, the business is hurting.’”

Living with a health condition shouldn’t prevent you from having a fulfilling career.

That’s why we’ve put together some suggestions for how you can craft the career you deserve. It’s not going to be easy, and it might look different than it does for your peers who don’t live with a chronic health condition, but it’s more than worth a shot.

1. Make sure you have the best treatment plan—for you

First and foremost, it’s important to ensure that you have the absolute best treatment plan for you. This condition can be so vastly different for everyone, which means treatment differs, too. Explore different treatment options (from prescription medications to supplements to lifestyle changes), and if you have trouble finding something that works, consider getting a second opinion.

2. Talk to your boss

We know, it’s not always comfortable to open up to your manager about your health issues, even if you do have a good relationship. It’s long been said to keep your personal life out of the workplace. And, for the most part, checking things at the door is probably a good idea.

But if a personal matter prevents you from doing your job, we encourage you to have this conversation and emphasize that you want to do an awesome job at work, but you just need a little flexibility to do it.

Discuss what you’re going through at a high level, come up with a plan for when you have a migraine (i.e., going home and flexing your hours or picking up an extra shift when you feel better), and discuss accommodations that can help you avoid your triggers.

“It’s never easy talking about a health condition,” says Cove customer April O. “But I think it benefits everyone to have it at some point. The sooner, the better.”

(To make this conversation a little bit easier, we wrote a template here.)

And we know—unfortunately, not all supervisors listen, nor are they all empathetic and compassionate. (And that sucks.) In fact, it’s no surprise that 40% of those who took our survey and choose not to talk to their boss say it’s because they don’t trust them to take them seriously or they’re worried about how they’ll react.

If you have an HR department you trust, consider taking this conversation to them. If not, well, that’s a tough situation, and it might be time for you to move on from this specific company or team as soon as you’re able.

Because, bottom line: Navigating your job as someone with a chronic illness is going to be a whole lot easier if your manager is in-the-know and has your back.

3. Identify your migraine triggers and avoid them (if possible)

While there’s no cure for migraine, there are likely certain things that trigger your attacks. If you haven’t identified yours yet, start tracking your migraine attacks and see if there are any trends. Some common triggers are:

  • bright lights,
  • changes in the weather
  • dehydration
  • lack of sleep
  • noise
  • stress

Once you have a list of specific-to-you triggers, see which of them are in your workplace. And when you go to talk to your boss, take your trigger list in with you, along with some accommodation suggestions. Explain that decreasing your exposure to triggers lessens the likelihood of getting a migraine, which, in turn, means you can be as productive as usual.

For instance, maybe a trigger is noise, and your desk is right next to a common area. Or, maybe scent is one, and you work next to a person who wears way too much cologne. In addition, you may be able to get rid of some triggers on your own. If dehydration is a big one for you, you can make sure to take a large water bottle. Others, though, are in the control of your workplace.

No matter how many accommodations you and your boss may put in place, though, you may still get a migraine at work. Be prepared for the possibility. Keep some of your acute medications at your desk and devise a plan of action. Perhaps there’s a dark, quiet room you can duck into for a bit. Or maybe you can rest in your car with some noise-canceling headphones and sunglasses.

April, for example, always keeps sumatriptan on her and in her office. When she gets a migraine at work, for she takes some sumatriptan, turns off the ringer on her phone, and tries to push forward. This plan works for her, but something different might be better for you. Figure out what should be in your “first aid migraine kit,” and always keep it stocked.

4. Build your job search around your condition

Unfortunately, you might end up needing to leave the job you’re currently in, either because your manager refuses to accommodate you or because there’s just no way that job can meet your needs. Or maybe you’re changing companies for another reason — either way, your job search is a great opportunity to look for a role that’s more accommodating.

When you’re looking for your next gig, try finding somewhere that has less exposure to your main triggers. Remember—an interview is just as much about you getting a feel for the company as it is about them getting a feel for you. Talk to different people who work there. Ask them what management and HR is like. Are there work from home options? Can you flex your schedule? What’s their stance on accommodations? Are the leave policies super strict?

If you work a shift-based job, make sure you ask what shifts need filling. The answer could impact you for several reasons. If it’s an outdoor job and you’re sensitive to light, for example, early morning or evening shifts may be better.

5. Consider going off on your own

Ultimately, you simply might not be able to find a role you love that also provides you with the allowances you need. In that case, it may be a good idea to go off on your own, whether that’s starting a small business or freelancing full-time.

Emily F. worked as a career counselor at a university for 12 years. When she decided to start her own business as a career reinvention coach, she cited chronic migraine as a reason.

Working for herself has been life changing for Emily. She has full autonomy, which is less stressful (for her). When she’s less stressed, she gets better sleep. This is crucial because poor sleep is her number one trigger. She also has more flexibility to spend time on her chosen methods of preventive care—massage and acupuncture—“which is enormously helpful at keeping those migraines at bay.”

The freelance life has been great for Jessy, too.

“If I need to take a pause in the middle of a project, I can do that,” she shares. And when she sets project deadlines with clients, she factors in extra time to account for the possibility of a migraine. For instance, without the interruption of an attack, she can write 1,500 words in four hours. But if she gets a migraine, “that time can double or even triple.” She sets herself up for success as best as she can. So if and when a migraine does strike, she’s not panicking about missing deadlines.

And don’t forget that there are a ton of free resources you can access to help you figure out how to work for yourself. Your local public library, your region’s small business development center, and SBA.gov are a great place to start, as is chatting with small business owners or freelancers to learn about their journey.


We know—It’s not fair that you have to jump through extra hoops to find a fulfilling career that also lets you prioritize your health. But here’s the thing: You have a lot to offer this world, and you should be able to work at a place that best helps you do that. So all that hoop jumping is worth it. You’re worth it. And you don’t necessarily have to do it without help, either. While it may be hard to get approved, people with migraine can apply for disability benefits (more on applying for disability here. If you get approved, it can be immensely helpful. But either way, know that you deserve to have the career you want.


Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

Sumatriptan is an oral medication indicated for the acute treatment of migraine with or without aura in adults and not for the prophylactic therapy of migraine attacks or for the treatment of cluster headache. Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or plan on getting pregnant. You will need to talk about the benefits and risks of using this drug while you are pregnant. Tell your doctor if you are breast-feeding. Call your doctor right away if you have chest, throat, neck, or jaw tightness, pain, pressure, or heaviness; break out in a cold sweat; shortness of breath; a fast heartbeat; a heartbeat that does not feel normal; or very bad dizziness or passing out. Very bad and sometimes deadly brain blood vessel problems like stroke have rarely happened with this drug. Call your doctor right away if you have weakness on 1 side of the body, trouble speaking or thinking, change in balance, drooping on 1 side of the face, or change in eyesight. You can read more about sumatriptan’s side effects, warnings, and precautions here. Full prescribing information for sumatriptan is available here. You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit MedWatch: https://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm or call 1-800-FDA-1088.