· 3 min read · Features

Being mindful of migraines in the workplace


A large proportion of the people seeking help from The Migraine Trust are looking for support with workplace issues

Many feel that their employer does not understand what migraines are, or in some cases doesn’t even recognise that it is a complex neurological condition and not 'just a headache'. This means they are not meeting their responsibilities for the health and safety of their employee; nor are they making reasonable adjustments to allow them to work and live with migraine.

This is a serious issue as, while an employer can’t always prevent an employee from having a migraine attack, it can make a significant difference on how it affects their work. Workplaces can exacerbate the condition but, on the other hand, they can also help someone manage it.

That is why The Migraine Trust is launching a drive to promote how workplaces can be ‘Mindful of migraine’. We believe that employers need to:

  • Be aware of the high numbers of people who get migraine, that it is very common and that there is a strong possibility that someone they employ might suffer from migraines.
  • Have an understanding that it is a complex neurological condition and people can experience migraine very differently.
  • Make reasonable adjustments once they become aware that they have an employee who gets migraine, such as considering flexible working practices and looking at how their physical environment can be adjusted to help prevent the triggering of a migraine. An employee’s GP or neurologist, or an occupational health practitioner, can help identify any changes that would be helpful.

This won’t mean that people with migraine never struggle at work again, or that they won’t encounter issues at work because of migraine. But we believe it is an important step.

We know this because, as well as stories of people with migraine struggling at work, we hear of people whose lives have been transformed by a supportive employer. A supportive environment where an employee feels their condition is understood and taken seriously means they can be open about the impact that it is having on them, and lead to a discussion on how best to manage it at work.

A great example is Alison Elmes, who is a teacher and has been suffering migraines for years. She was working in a windowless classroom that was lined with hot water pipes and 32 computers. Her migraine days increased, as heat is a trigger for her, and it led to her having to take time off work. When she returned she had back to work interviews with the head of the school, who was really interested in what her experience of migraine was like and what triggered it as well as what she could do to help. She referred Alison to occupational health and they then installed air conditioning, which helped hugely.

Another is Sammy Ashby, deputy chief executive of an epilepsy charity. As part of her role – the charity’s work with bereaved families – she has regular wellbeing sessions with a colleague who is a trained counsellor. These sessions also give her a good opportunity to reflect on if work is affecting her migraine and a chance to talk about this in a confidential non-judgemental space. This has helped her come up with solutions. She can then speak to her line manager about anything that might help reduce the impact of her migraine.

These are just two examples of how an employer taking their employee’s migraine attacks seriously can help mitigate its impact on their work. It is important that employers understand they are often the key to helping people with migraine manage their working lives. With one in seven people in the UK getting migraine, the business case is clear.

Tips on supporting an employee with migraine

  • People with migraine experience it differently. Once you are aware an employee gets migraine it would be good to discuss it with them. This will give you an understanding of what symptoms they get, how frequently they get migraine, and what their triggers are. This will help you ascertain if there are reasonable adjustments you can make.
  • Migraine is a condition that often changes over time. It can improve, but also change from episodic to chronic. An annual meeting with an employee to discuss their migraine is a good way to help them manage their condition if it is changing.
  • An employer could consider disregarding a reasonable amount of disability-related sickness absence to help ensure an employee is not put at a substantial disadvantage by any absence management procedure.

The Migraine Trust has a toolkit that provides general information for people with migraine, their colleagues, managers, trade unions, human resource departments and occupational health professionals, about ways to manage migraine in the workplace.

It also has an advocacy service that supports people with migraine in their employment, as well as education and accessing healthcare.

Wendy Thomas is chief executive of The Migraine Trust