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How to Ask for Migraine Accommodations at Work

Migraine often affects people’s professional lives very negatively. Migraine sometimes appears at the most inopportune times, like when you’re preparing for a big meeting or trying to give a presentation. Sometimes, it can be caused by triggers in your work environment and can make progressing up the career ladder very difficult.

There are a lot of unique circumstances where people with migraine can have issues at their job, but many workplaces are willing to work with their employees who live with it. If you come to your employer with some potential solutions in hand, more often than not you will be able to reach a compromise.

Tracking Triggers in the Office

As a first step, it’s important for patients to take note of things in their working environment that can be triggering. For many people, it’s the kinds of lights in the building. Sometimes, staring at screens for long periods of time can also cause migraine, and you have to figure out exactly how much of it you can tolerate. It can even be the hours that you’re working, especially if you’re someone on the night shift and it’s significantly impacting your sleep schedule. 

I think a major thing for employees to understand is that their triggers may be different than other people’s triggers. That’s why making notes of what exactly is a trigger for your migraines and coming up with potential solutions is so important. Then, if you need certain accommodations, you can speak to someone who may be able to help you change something, like human resources or your manager.

Requesting Accommodations

Usually, in a polite and non-demanding way, you can go to HR and tell them, “This is a little bit of an issue for me, is there any way that we can potentially come to some kind of compromise?” Your employers do not want you to have a migraine because they want you to be able to work at as high of a level as possible. They may understand that, if these things are triggers, you may be absent. You may even be present, but not producing the caliber of work you’re capable of.

That being said, there are many times where people will need a letter from their doctor. Work with your headache specialist to determine what a compromise might look like. We’ve definitely written these kinds of letters or spoken to people at a patient’s workplace before, and we’ve tried our best to get these accommodations in place. The American Migraine Foundation has a fair amount of resources on migraine in the workplace and information on how to fill out disability papers, etc. However, I think the greatest advocates for headache patients are headache specialists. It’s specialists and our staff that fill out requests for accommodations or disability on a daily basis.

In more extreme cases, there are certain circumstances where every headache specialist has had to argue, as opposed to advocate, for at least some of their patients. But the truth is that today, people are more sensitive to disabilities in general, and more accommodating to people who need certain things. If you’re asking for something reasonable, your employer will likely understand it is a good compromise.

Dr. Berk is a neurologist and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Neurology and Division of Headache Medicine at NYU Langone Health. He works closely with the American Migraine Foundation to educate others about migraine.