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A couple of coworkers around the watercolor gossiping about a message they just received from a coworker who is on sick-leave but still working.

When Coworkers See You Work on a Sick Day

Like many of you, I have somehow managed to hold down a job despite my diagnosis of chronic migraine. I also have psoriatic arthritis, which has been well-managed in the last couple of years but, like all chronic conditions, will likely flare up again before too long. In my case, I worked for years to create a job that gives me the time and space to be sick when I need to: I founded my own business. This isn’t an option or even an interest for many out there, but it has worked for me; I’ve even written a few articles and delivered a TEDx talk about being a migraineur entrepreneur.

Thankfully, most of my coworkers at Avid Bookshop don’t have serious issues with chronic pain or disability. This means they can often work the customer-facing shifts that can sometimes be impossible for me when I’m migraining.

Some tasks are easier than others during a migraine attack

One thing that’s always hard to explain to people without chronic illness is that there’s a sliding scale of what sorts of tasks you can tackle on particular days (or during particular hours). There are some days when I know I simply must avoid any accounting work because my migraine brain will make too many mathematical mistakes without realizing it. Once in awhile, I can find a few hours to respond to emails or do very simple tasks while sitting in my bed wearing my favorite cat pajamas. I may not be able to cross off tasks on my to-do list that require serious intellectual skills or decision-making, but I can post on Instagram (though I’ve been known to make migrainey typos there!), write simple notes to customers and sales reps, and brainstorm about upcoming staff meetings.

So this is good news, right? Isn’t it good that I can figure out a way to get some work done despite migraine? I may not be able to tackle the most significant jobs, but I can get some of the more basic, less serious work out of the way—there’s not too much to be upset about there, right?

Well, sort of.

Unintentional mixed messages when working remotely

I’ve learned the complicated way that working remotely in 2018 at my particular business means that my coworkers can easily see that I’m online and active. They are getting a mixed message: they’ve gotten a notification that I’m home sick today, but they see by monitoring our shared email account that I’m clocked in and working on non-essential tasks.

This is especially confusing and frustrating for them on days when they are waiting for something I’m behind on. Last year, we had several managers shifting positions within the company, and most were waiting on updated offer letters (complete with raises, new position titles, and working guidelines). I had to postpone these letters repeatedly because I was too migrainey to examine Avid’s pay structure, how a 5% raise would impact the bottom line 12 months from now versus a 7% raise, and how to outline their job titles in a concise but accurate way.

I could respond to our publisher rep who was looking for a blurb to share about an upcoming book release I loved. I could post photos of the bookshops on our Instagram page. I could write very simple emails to customers who had posed straightforward questions.

Openly sharing experiences to increase understanding

But my staff didn’t understand the idea that I could have what I think of as a half-sick day, a day I can work but not with my full brain. They just saw that I was seeming to prioritize relatively trivial, non-essential tasks despite being behind on their offer letters and other time-sensitive, demanding tasks.

As a chronically ill boss, I continually try to share my experiences with my coworkers about what I can and cannot do on what sorts of days. I try to let them know if I am sick as in completely bedridden or if I’m sick as in able to sit in my pajamas doing seemingly menial tasks. I have a lot of opportunity for growth here, but I’m getting better at letting them know what my migraine brain can and cannot do, and I’d like to think I’m getting better at letting them know the reasons why high-priority tasks sometimes have to wait until the migraine has passed and I’m back to feeling smart and capable again.

Do any of you have this sort of problem at work or home, whether or not you are a business owner or manager? I’d love to talk more about this kind of situation in the comments below.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Nikita212
    2 years ago

    I have done the same type of thing in my own business. Family members can’t understand how I can be anything but bed-ridden and not be able to have people over for dinner. It’s hard to get across the various levels of migraine.

  • anonbutanon
    2 years ago

    I read your post and kept saying, “Mm-hmm, oh yes, totally, been there.” I worked in accounting and worked through countless migraines, staying home on days when it was impossible. But it confused people when I was there and said I had a migraine because it is hard for them to grasp there are so many different levels. I saved menial tasks like filing, cleaning up accounts, writing up journals and updating state tax spreadsheets for days or times when I would need something that was basically data entry – not a lot of concentration needed. I dreaded when I had to deal with the auditors because I couldn’t NOT work that week. So I’d be slogging away despite a completely unmanageable migraine, popping Bonine and avoiding food to get through it. From my co-worker’s perspective, this made staying home look like malingering. I also had to deal with fibromyalgia flare-ups and migraine ‘storms’, as I call them, triggering depression. My husband finally saw that I needed to quit work. We thought it would be a financial hardship, but with no longer working we save money on a lot of things. I cook more because I’m not exhausted so we save money eating at home. I can shop better so we save money there. I don’t need to go to the doctor as often, so more money saved. I do still have about the same number of migraines – if not constant, at least every 36hrs. So I worry about making my 12 pills a month last – I break them in half and struggle through with Tramadol on days like today – but I have a lot less stress because I no longer have to call in sick, basically asking a non-migraneur for permission to be ill. Even my work in the home is sporadic and confusing to my husband at times. Some days I can tackle my sewing room and rearrange furniture, other days I’m proud that the dishes got done. Yesterday was a dishes-only day. Today is a dishes and laundry, no working in the yard day. It is a lot easier to explain my ability to do some things and not others on any given day to my husband than to bosses and co-workers, so it works for me. I still feel a little sad about no longer working secularly as I was proud of my ability, but I am finding new ways to be uniquely productive, like taking up sewing. But I can definitely sympathize with anyone who has those limitations in the workplace and how they vary daily and can confuse others.

  • 2mnyheadaches
    2 years ago

    I currently work full-time at a nonflexible 8-5 job. I often work through a migraine and do not tell my coworkers. In addition to working full-time I am also completing my bachelor’s degree. Once I obtain my degree, my priority will be to find a more flexible job or possibly a remote work position.

  • marg221
    2 years ago

    I am fortunate that I got a lot of cooperation from my co-workers in most every job I ever had. Why, because I get nauseous when I have a bad migraine and I vomit. I look green before and not much better after. And there are mounting levels of my prodrome; a vague and building nausea coming over me prior to severe head pain. Stop the nausea and I can stop the head pain. And vice versa. Most who worked with me knew I had to switch gears if I started to get headachy. Great support always from family, friends, teachers, bosses and anyone I run into a lot all know/knew about me and my headaches. I give out a lot of education too, accessibility and disability rights is my expertise.

  • Sarah Hackley moderator
    2 years ago

    I needed this article. Like you, I’ve managed to create my own career since my diagnosis of chronic migraine (which is the only reasons I am able to continue to work). Like you, I also have an autoimmune disorder (RA) that flares up and complicates matters even more. And, like you, I also work on menial tasks when I take a sick day, which often confuses my clients, partners, and colleagues. It’s nice to see how someone else is navigating these issues. Thank you for writing this.

  • danarae
    2 years ago

    It’s hard to work with a bad migraine because it’s an invisible I’ll ess and they don’t understand. I also try to do less of some things and more of others, but wish I had more understanding and support. I tend to try to be tough and not whine about it, but maybe I need to ask for more understanding. I can’t stay home or i’d be at home all of the time.
    At least my husband understands that even if I’m not in bed (as I can try to sit with everyone and distract myself from the pain) that I need quiet, dark, help. I am lucky there at least.

  • twobassets
    2 years ago

    I’m very open about my migraine and what I can and can’t do. Most of my coworkers understand and are supportive. I always have a migraine…always. They can tell the severity just by looking at me. Pain levels vary from day to day and sometimes hour to hour but I have learned to maximize my high level thinking times. It’s important for me to let them know what I can tackle on any given day. It actually makes things easier because they start to understand the weird rhythm I am trapped in. If I can’t function I say so. If I can manage easier tasks I let them know. The truth is, I can start out the day thinking I can make the whole day and within a few hours realize I can’t. I advocate for sharing. People can’t understand or offer support if they don’t know what’s going on. I am so fortunate that I have a level of flexibility that allows me to work around these issues. On the bright side I could always go back to episodic migraine…yes I would take that option.

  • IntricatePurple
    2 years ago

    My co workers avoid me, they say its written all over your face when i am having an episode. One even says my face turns a tinge of green. Its awful but I dont want to loose me job.

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