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Migraine at Work: How HR Professionals See Migraine

As awful as it is to have a migraine attack at work, the stigma and lack of understanding among supervisors and coworkers often ratchet up the stress of the attack. Having heard horror stories from people with migraine for years, I was curious about how employers see migraine. A recently published survey gives us some insight.

How is migraine viewed in the workplace?

Survey responses from 309 HR professionals in every type of business in the United States give us a glimpse of how migraine is viewed and how people with migraine are treated in the workplace. Aimed Alliance, a health policy nonprofit, teamed with the HR Research Institute for this study. They gathered survey responses from July to October 2020 and released their findings in January 2021. Here are some of the main findings.

Do co-workers and employers understand?

  • 48% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their organization considers migraine to be a disability
  • 21% said they personally lack knowledge about migraine
  • 71% said those who are supervisors in their organization are not knowledgeable about migraine

Do they stigmatize the disease?

  • 40% said that supervisors think their employees with migraine are "exaggerating" or "faking it"
  • 39% said supervisors don’t think a migraine attack is a valid reason to miss work
  • 36% said supervisors don’t see migraine as debilitating
  • 61% said employees are comfortable asking their supervisors for migraine-related accommodations
  • 85% said employees are comfortable asking HR for migraine-related accommodations

Kerrie's editorializing: These responses are what HR professionals say other people think, not people reporting what they themselves think. That seriously biased the results and gave me pause about sharing the survey at all. Ultimately, I decided it was valuable to know what HR professionals believe, even if we don’t know directly what supervisors or employees believe.

How do they see migraine’s impact on employees?

  • 65% said employees work through migraine attacks
  • 20% said migraine attacks always impair an employee’s ability to work, while 66% say they sometimes impair a person’s ability to work (1% say migraine attacks never impact a person’s ability to work)
  • 75% said employees use sick days (whether paid or unpaid) for migraine
  • 27% said employees have used the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for migraine

How do they view workplace accommodations?

  • 56% believed their workplace does a “good job” of helping and accommodating employees with migraine
  • 36% said their workplace was unlikely to make changes that would reduce migraine triggers for an employee
  • 61% said a doctor’s note is always required to make accommodations for a person with migraine; 22% said they sometimes require a doctor’s note for accommodations

Three accommodations were mentioned as likely to be offered within an organization:

  • Flexible schedules or breaks (offered by 56%)
  • Working remotely (51%)
  • Different lighting (50%)

When asked how their organizations support employees with migraine, the three most common answers were:

  • Employee Assistance Programs (72%)
  • Health insurance that covers migraine treatment (59%)
  • Wellness programs (58%)

Kerrie's editorializing: There’s a lot to unpack here. I would be thrilled if half of the workplaces did a good job supporting people with migraine, but I highly doubt the perceptions of HR professionals align with the experience of people with migraine. That belief is supported by the ways in which respondents said their workplace supports employees — few things mentioned make a difference in the day-to-day experience of migraine at work. And health insurance is wonderful for employees who qualify for work-sponsored insurance. Still, many don’t, and those who do, encounter major obstacles, like required step therapy or treatments not being on the formulary.

What does a supportive workplace look like?

Analysis of the survey uncovered common threads among organizations that were more supportive of employees with migraine. They were more likely to:

  • Understand the debilitating nature of migraine and that it can be a disability
  • Be aware of migraine stigma and strive to reduce stigma at work
  • Have fewer supervisors who think employees are faking it or exaggerating their migraine symptoms
  • Support open communication about workplace accommodations
  • Provide migraine-related accommodations for employees who need them
  • Have good medical benefits with reduced restrictions
  • Provide general wellness programs

Read more

This article hits only the highlights of The State of Migraine Disease in the Workplace, a 44-page report on the survey findings that dive into the experience of migraine at work. It provides a nuanced look at survey responses and includes suggestions on how to better support employees. I highly recommend it if you’re trying to improve your experience of migraine at work. I recommend sharing with your HR department, if appropriate, or with friends and family who are in a position to make changes in their own workplaces.

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

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