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Having Chronic Migraine Should Not Be a Fireable Offense

Recently, a U.S. District Court judge in Kansas landed an “important legal win for migraine and its status as a disability in the workplace.” The judge denied Westar Energy’s motion to dismiss a claim filed by an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act; the employee said she was fired for missing work due to chronic migraine (Westar Energy said she had no right to accommodations because migraine is “not a cognizable disability”).

Although the case is still early in the litigation process, his ruling provides validation for the thousands of employees who experience the stigma of migraine while on the job as well as those who have endured punitive consequences as a result of their condition. We should all be encouraged by this decision, but this case and others like it also remind us of a sobering truth:

Having chronic migraine can get you fired.

It is unfortunate, but people from all industries face the stigma of the condition in their work environment. They have to put up with misconceptions that a migraine is “just a headache” which can easily be treated with aspirin or that a request for time off due to an attack is just a ploy to get a free sick day. The most extreme consequence of this workplace stigma can be reassignment, threat of punishment or even termination as evidenced by the complaint filed in Kansas.

And professionals across the country deal with those repercussions every day. In fact, shared just a few workplace horror stories from people with migraine:

“I get regular migraines the same days every week. I was taken in to a meeting and I was told to stop having headaches on a Monday or else.”

“[I] was let go from my hospital tech job even though I just was approved for FMLA. I went to work through many horrible migraines, even vomiting in the locker room. I only missed five days in an entire year, but the boss was arrogant and didn’t believe me even though she was a nurse.”

“I had an episode last week of a migraine headache, went to emergency room and my boss fired me the next day by sending me a text saying to stop being a fool and not to come back anymore to work.”

The law has been mixed on this issue in the past, adding to the frustration of many migraineurs. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is supposed to provide protection against discrimination as well as require companies to provide “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities. However, there is no list of specific disabilities that are protected, and court rulings have been inconsistent on whether or not migraine meets the standards set forth by the ADA. Coupled with the fact that migraine is considered an invisible illness, it can be especially difficult to prove an ADA violation in court.

But it should not even be up to the law to make our case.

I have worked with people who have chronic and episodic migraine. I have heard them recount the bouts of intense pain during an attack. In one case, a colleague experienced debilitating vision problems that forced him to find someone who could drive him home from an offsite meeting because he was unable to do it himself. I have witnessed the ensuing fog that can consume their brains and limit their ability to function in the workplace. I have observed their desire to shroud themselves in darkness during or after an attack because of the painful nature of everyday light.

But that only tells one side of the story because I have also seen the incredible passion these same people have for their job; the loyalty and dedication to their fellow colleagues; the commitment to advancing the company’s mission and goals. Any physical limitations that stem from a chronic headache disorder have never affected their professional purpose. Therefore, issues like absenteeism or impacted work performance should be met with understanding and compassion by employers, not with mockery or suspicion. They must recognize how migraine can impact their employees and subsequently work toward finding a middle ground that benefits both the company and the people involved.

And if they do not, then hopefully this latest court decision will be a wake-up call.

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Thinkstock photo by kieferpix