Living With Migraines

Here's How to Talk to Your Boss About Your Migraine Headaches

After conducting a survey among migraine sufferers (some Cove customers included!) we found that, for the almost 1,000 people who took our survey, the average pain rating during a migraine is 7.4 (with 10 being absolutely excruciating pain). So, pretty darn agonizing.

“Sometimes,” survey respondent and Cove customer America M. says, “it’s too much pain to handle leaving the house. Not only can my head throb for several hours, but I become very dizzy and not focused. I’m also very nauseated and my body just feels terrible.”

Dealing with that type of pain is hard enough on its own. But pushing through it when you also have to work? That’s a doozy. Given how incapacitating migraines can be, it’s no surprise that they can have a major impact on your ability to do your job. And we don’t believe you should be penalized for something that isn’t your fault.

If you work for someone else, it’s a good idea to have an open, honest conversation with your boss to see if you can develop a plan that helps you be the most productive and healthy employee possible.

And because 60% of sufferers who took the survey do not talk to their manager about their migraine attacks, we wanted to emphasize that you absolutely have the right to advocate for yourself and your health at work.

It’s by no means an easy thing to do, even if you and your supervisor have a positive working relationship. Not only can divulging details about your personal life (especially a medical condition) be uncomfortable, but it’s really hard to explain how debilitating and painful migraines can be to people who’ve never had one. Neurodiagnostics technician Rachel L., for example, was continuously disappointed and frustrated by the reaction she’d get from her colleagues and manager.

“[They’d] say, ‘You only have four more hours’ in response to my request to go home due to migraine. [That] might as well be four more days,” Rachel shares. That’s why Cove customer April O. thinks educating others on migraine is one of the best things you can do to improve your situation.

“I think that people don’t have an understanding of what a migraine is and what it does to a person,” April says. “The best advice I can give is to have [this] conversation with someone you can trust at work. Have [it] in private with a boss or manager, and give them a heads up.”

So, here are some tips on how to go about this conversation (template included!).

1. Get clear on your end goal

For conversations like this, you need to be specific about what you want to get out of it. What’s your ultimate intention?

  • Do you just want your boss to know that you have migraine?
  • Do you need special accommodations for your physical workspace?
  • Do you want to propose different hours?
  • Are you going to try to move from a full-time workday to part-time?

Your end goal is up to you, but it’ll be a lot easier to steer the conversation if you know what direction to go in.

2. Prepare your talking points

Any time you go into a meeting in which you might be uncomfortable, there’s a good chance you’ll end up leaving without saying everything you need to say.

That’s why we suggest listing out your talking points and bringing them with you. Be as specific as possible so you can refer to it when needed. Some points we suggest are:

  • Your specific migraine triggers
  • How these triggers are present in your work environment
  • The effect that each has on you and your productivity
  • Your suggestions for avoiding the most prominent triggers in the workplace

“It’s important to link specific triggers in the office environment with the effect they may have on your attacks, especially as a way of underscoring the ways in which migraine does not simply equal ‘headache,’” explains Greg B., a director at Theraspecs, a therapeutic eyewear company. (And if you’re having trouble succinctly explaining the difference between migraine and headache, this article can help.)

3. Bring relevant documentation

It’s never fun to feel like you have to show up with “receipts” to get someone to believe you, but the fact is, documentation can help. If you have any paperwork from your doctor or neurologist that states a migraine diagnosis and what some of your symptoms are, add it to your arsenal. Take note, though, that you don’t need to get super personal, even if your boss asks for details (which they shouldn’t).

You should be completing and gathering this paperwork anyway, in case you want to file for disability benefits.

4. Provide possible solutions

It’s the same age-old advice for bringing any sort of problem to your manager: Come equipped with possible solutions. Devising an entire plan to help you cope with your migraines will be overwhelming if they have to do it on their own, especially if they don’t really understand what the big deal about migraines is. “If you can present a shortlist of accommodation ideas,” says Greg, “it’ll show your willingness to be part of the solution and emphasize your desire to be a contributing team member.” Start with the triggers that are most prevalent in the workplace. Then, suggest possible ways that those triggers could be decreased or eliminated. (Here’s a great list of suggestions from the Job Accommodation Network.)

We suggest providing a few different solutions for each. You can, of course, indicate which one you prefer, but you might have to compromise on something that works for both you and your employer.

You can also figure out what works best for you and suggest a trial run. Remember: This conversation isn’t intended to be 30 minutes of you making endless demands. It’s a collaborative conversation where—fingers crossed—you and your boss can work together to come up with the best solution for everyone.

Most likely, this conversation isn’t going to be fun or easy. But your health is worth it, and so is your career. If chronic migraine is getting in the way of your productivity, your ability to function normally, and your career progression, then you owe it to yourself to attempt it.

And, as promised, here’s a general template for how to start off this conversation.

Hi [Insert Boss’ Name],

Thanks so much for meeting with me today. I wanted to discuss a concern I have and hope we can work together to figure out a way forward.

For the past [X] years, I’ve been dealing with migraine. I typically get a migraine [X] times per month. When I do, the pain is excruciating. [Insert a few more symptoms here]. During these times, it’s very hard to do my job.

There are a few things that trigger my migraines. The top triggers for me are [insert one to three triggers]. [Insert trigger] affects my job most because of [insert reason].

I’ve come up with a few ways I think I could reduce this trigger, thus decreasing my risk of getting a migraine and increasing my ability to do a better job. Would you be willing to take a look at my list? Also, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about migraines.

Oftentimes, the hardest conversations to have are the most necessary. This is one of those. Because an illness shouldn’t hold you back from having a fulfilling career, and your job shouldn’t hold you back from taking care of yourself. These two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. So, good luck! We’re rooting for you.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash