Finding Work That Works Despite Migraine

Migraine is a disease that’s still widely misunderstood and dismissed, especially in the workplace. Migraine can inhibit your ability to work, even when there are bills to pay and you have no health insurance. During the pandemic especially, some with migraine—especially women—have faced economic hardship.

Melanie Whetzel is the lead consultant of the Cognitive/Neurological Team with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Her post-graduate work has been primarily focused on special education. As the lead consultant, Melanie specializes in learning disabilities, mental impairments, developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and brain injuries. She presents nationally on these topics, and has authored several publications.

What are the challenges of managing a career with frequent and disabling migraine?

Melanie Whetzel: Migraine patterns are very individual. One of the biggest issues is that migraine attacks often occur with little or no warning, impacting both the employer and employee. If they cause frequent absences or an inability to perform optimally, that can cause a problem. Most employers expect that an employee to have consistent, reliable attendance. Migraine disease is also misunderstood. It’s an invisible disability, unlike the loss of an arm, for instance, and many employers and co-workers have no experience of migraine.

What type of work might be best for those with frequent or chronic migraine?

Melanie Whetzel: There are many different accommodation ideas that can help in an office setting. If the issue is lighting, a big office space or a big retail location can be difficult unless you can control the lighting yourself. If you can work from home, you’ve got much more control over the environment. If fragrances are a problem, you don’t want to work in a florist shop or near a bathing products area. With noise, many people use noise-canceling headsets or earbuds, and some install doors or sound absorption panels. We work with employers so they can provide any accommodations until they cause a hardship: something that would be too expensive, too disruptive, or would change the nature of the business. Because migraine can be a disabling condition, you need to decide if you can stay at your current job with reasonable accommodations, or, if you can’t get accommodations or they aren’t feasible, if you need to find new work.
Should you tell your employer or a prospective employer about your migraine disease? 

Melanie Whetzel: Timing is critical. You don’t have to disclose any type of disability or medical condition until you need an accommodation. Understandably, a lot of people don’t want to talk about their disability when they’re being interviewed. Once employers make a conditional offer of employment, however, they can ask medical questions. That’s a good time to disclose so that it doesn’t become too much of an issue. Once hired, you want to be as honest with your employer as possible; you need to be able to state why something’s a problem so they can understand. Employers should then be more willing to look at accommodations that work. However, if there are issues that occur after disclosure, then organizations like JAN have specific steps we recommend to protect yourself.

Watch the full interview for answers to

  • What are some of the challenges of managing a career with frequent and disabling migraine?
  • What type of work might be best suited for someone living with frequent or chronic migraine?
  • When is it appropriate to ask for job accommodations at work?
  • If fragrance is a trigger for someone with migraine, what’s the best way to go about handling a situation in which a coworker wears a lot of perfume?
  • What guidance would you give to someone with migraine who is considering starting their own business?
  • Should you tell your employer or a prospective employer that you have migraine disease?
  • What if you disclose that you have migraine and then face repercussions from your employer?
  • If an issue arises at work that an employee suspects is discrimination because of their disablity, what resources are available to help?
  • Are there accommodations you can ask for when working from home?
  • How should the question “Do you have a disability?” be answered on job applications?
  • What are some things that can be done to raise awareness of migraine in the workplace?

Watch Melanie Whetzel’s interview preview here, or order it as part of the Migraine World Summit package from this page.