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Figure trying to climb stairs being held back by a brain at the bottom of the stairs.

Impact of Migraine on My Career

Migraine is a disease that touches all areas of your life. Career is a huge area that gets affected by migraine. I’ve had the same career for thirty plus years and migraine has disrupted it to the point I had to leave it behind. I was the employee who never took a sick day. That was until migraine disease stepped into my life.

I started out with episodic attacks and I powered through them the best that I could. Over time they became chronic and then intractable. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion as migraine took over my life and career despite seeking treatment.

Using FMLA for migraine

I was fortunate to have a supervisor that had compassion for me, but that compassion wasn’t easily earned. I had to have a serious dialogue with my boss about what was happening to my health. I laid it all on the table, and he was able to see why I was burning off personal time every month. He was genuinely concerned and in turn, explained the Family Medical Leave Act to me. He wanted to give me a way to protect my position and career. I used intermittent FMLA leave to protect the weeks of time I was needing to take off due to migraine. FMLA gave me twelve weeks of protected time and that was enough to keep me going during the episodic attack cycle that I was going through.

Keeping detailed records of interactions with my new supervisor

As time went on and my migraines became chronic FMLA time was quickly being eaten up due to days long cycles of migraine. My empathic supervisor was replaced around this time, but he left in place reasonable accommodations with flexible scheduling that were a big help at keeping me working. His replacement was less than understanding. My reasonable accommodations were stripped and FMLA was noticeably a bother to the new supervisor. I was still performing up to the standards that we were held against despite the migraine attacks. I continued to butt heads with the new supervisor periodically. This lead my to start keeping detailed records and notes regarding my interactions with the new supervisor.

Creating awareness that migraine disease is a disability

I had been attacked on several occasions by my supervisor for things directly related to my migraine disease. I kept compiling records and getting things documented with the Human Resources department. Ultimately I had to go to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and file a complaint of discrimination. It was an extreme step to take, but I was going to make sure I stood up for myself and my disability. My work ethic and performance were not the issue. I won my case with the EEOC, but during the fight my migraines had become intractable. I could no longer stay in my career so the win was bittersweet. I stood my ground despite the disability and created a new awareness within my company for the disease.

Using tools to protect yourself from migraine’s impact

My career was affected by migraine disease, but I fought through it as long as I could. I know many people are fighting through migraines every day in their jobs and careers. I commend you for taking on such a daunting task each day. There are tools to help you in that fight. Use FMLA leave to protect your migraine related absences, talk to your supervisors and make them aware of your disability, and never stop fighting!

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.

Comments

  • NellyBly
    3 months ago

    Thanks for this article. Reading it and the comments, I’m left wishing that managers and employers were the ones reading this and not almost exclusively migraineurs.

    I’ve had every kind of experience working with migraine, from compassion and understanding to impatience and censure. Sometimes from the same manager at different times.

    People being what they are, I think if someone has never been sick, they don’t understand what it’s like living with a chronic disease that severely impacts normal functioning. I was pretty healthy before migraine began colonizing my life, and I have to admit that things like fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders seemed kind of dodgy to me. That, I would say, is the one good thing migraine gave me: when people say they are sick, I just believe them. You have no idea from looking at someone what they are going through. I remember one time I’d just had surgery for a neuro-stimulator implant (that didn’t end up helping, alas) and I had to go to work. I felt like garbage, but I pulled myself together, got dressed, put on makeup to avoid looking like death warmed over, and dragged myself in to work. I recall an exchange with my manager, who knew I’d had surgery and asked how I was doing. I answered honestly, that I was hanging on by a thread, and she gave me this skeptical, even slightly accusatory look and said, “Well you look fine!” With the emphasis on “look” implying that I was exaggerating to get sympathy or something. No worry of that from her. She also, one time when I was scheduled to work on a Saturday and I called in sick, told me if I couldn’t find someone to cover for me I would have to come in. Another time she said, oh, just come in for an hour in the morning to check on things and again in the evening. I know she thought she was being reasonable, and if the pain level of my migraines at that time were reasonable, I’d have said sure. But when the pain is so severe that you can’t do anything but lie still in a dark room, only moving to get up and puke every hour or so — no. Getting up, getting dressed, driving to work, dealing with whatever is going on there — just no.

    It feels a bit sadistic to wish migraine on anyone, but sometimes I wish everyone (adults, not children!) could suffer one or two just to know what it’s like — that it’s not “just a headache.” I always particularly wished she could have one — not out of spite, but for education. If you are going to manage people, you really have to have some understanding of illness, I think.

  • twobassets
    3 months ago

    My employer has been wonderful and I am truly blessed by their understanding and accommodations. I am finding it more exhausting and at some point will need to make decision I have avoided for over 20 years. I’ve been in an intractable state for over nine years now and it takes its toll. As long as I can be a better than an average team member I’m happy but as I see the inevitable slip it’s emotionally painful. Still, all in all I’m lucky with regard to employment just not so lucky with treatments. I’m in management of the disability mode now with no change in sight. But we are not alone! I take solace in that.

  • DonnaFA moderator
    3 months ago

    You’re absolutely not alone, @twobassets. We’re glad to be here to offer community and support. I’m sorry that you’re struggling. It is hard to let go of the things that we feel hold large parts our identity. It is heartening to know that your employer has been so supportive. Maybe they can offer some sort of consultancy that would allow you to cultivate your health while still maintaining a connection with the job and people you love. Sending warm wishes, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • newbattleaxe
    3 months ago

    I understand working while in the throes of a migraine attack. I also understand the difference between compassionate supervisors and jerks. I applaud (quietly) those bosses who fight for their valued employees every step of the way. We need more like them. As for the rest? I have a bushel of rotten tomatoes to throw!

  • sarah
    3 months ago

    Trying to work in accounting with chronic migraine is a joke. My symptoms would include terrible head pain that would include tension and pain in my jaw, brow, neck and shoulders. My right eye would become blurry and heavy fatigue would descend over me. When I think back to all that I pushed myself through, I feel like crying. I also cry about the loss of my potential and the burden I’ve put upon my husband, who fortunately is so understanding. So many times I tried to fake being okay. I’d take Fiorinal and use a triptan praying those would stop the progression of the attack. The nasal Imitrex would sometimes leave a little bit of white, sticky powder on my nostril. I’d joke with my husband that they probably think I’m snorting cocaine or something. I can so completely relate to having my “mental filing cabinet” locked. After losing jobs, I realized it would be impossible to find an employer who would be understanding when I’d call in sick or fake my way through 3-4 days a week. I was depressed and exhausted and in pain with vague symptoms like heavy fatigue and dizziness that no doctor was able to relieve.

  • Bskuhl
    3 months ago

    I worked for Intel Corporation for 17 years. Yes, they screwed me. I was 20 when I started there. As the years went by and stress increased, so did my migraines. Then came a wonderful new program…FMLOA. I worked with my supervisor and set it up. After a few years, they got tired of me taking time out. They said take a buyout or get fired. I worked with personnel and they were no help. Back then, I don’t think there was a government enforcement group so it was sue or accept the discrimination. So sad because Intel was supposedly into non-discrimination on just about everything else you can think of. But this is migraine. And EVERYONE discriminates on migraine. It’s just a headache right?
    Remember, you don’t get FMLA for 12 months of employment at your current job so good luck if you’re already sick. Secondly, keep ALL records! When your employer gets tired of providing accommodation or FMLA, you will need to go to the government to protect your job. Remember, your personnel reps work for the company and you are a distant second to them. Also remember, virtually nobody knows what a migraine really is. We are belittled and most are unwilling to understand us.
    After switching to the health care industry (pharmacy), it’s no different, not to mention that I cannot seem to make it through 12 conservative months to be eligible for FMLA.

  • deedeevee1
    3 months ago

    The same happened with my career with the government. Luckily, working with them to try and keep my job for as long as I did helped when I finally did receive my disability.

  • Georgiana
    3 months ago

    I work for myself. As far as being harassed about being down with a headache goes, my new “boss” is the worst I’ve ever had, unfortunately. (Yep, you read that correctly.)

    But, hey, can’t be fired, so it’s all good.

  • sarahblankenship
    3 months ago

    I have lost 4 jobs in 5 years, jobs I really loved. Jobs where I got to help people and make my little corner of the world a better place. There are very few jobs locally in my field that I haven’t had and lost. I am not working now, fortunately my significant other is able to keep us going until we decide what to do. I think I will be trying to apply for disability, which is a decision that has absolutely devastated me. I spent 10 years fighting to get my degree while having 4 children, working full time for most of that time, and dealing with a difficult and frequently absent spouse. Now it feels like a complete waste of time that I tried so hard. It’s not like I was making a great deal of money in social work, and migraines very often kept me from helping my people as well as I wanted to. I’m really having a lot of depression and grief over losing my career right now, and I don’t know how to deal with it yet.

  • Douglas
    3 months ago

    I have been very fortunate to have had multiple supervisors who are understanding and accommodating to my conditions. I have also been very fortunate to have an HR department that goes to great lengths to assist me in both filling out the paperwork and ensuring that I have different cases for each condition (e.g. FMLA paperwork through both my cardiologist and thorasic surgeon following a cardiac bypass). My boss is actually working with the architect to ensure that I have sufficient control over the lighting in my workspace in our new building. He has also indicated that he is willing to see me work remotely a great deal more if needed.

  • Dana
    3 months ago

    @pennych,
    Unfortunately,
    “If you are working, you are not disabled”.
    It doesn’t matter if you sob your way through a work day because you have to put food on the table our clothes on your children’s backs (if you have them) or keep the lights on…etc…. You should talk to a lawyer now, find out what your states “requirements” are… it sucks. If your back hurts you can get disability like Oprah gives out cars….but migraines? Nothing but hoops to jump through. I wish you the very best of Luck. But definitely reach out to a lawyer now…consultations are usually free.
    Hugs…Dana

  • Toby51
    3 months ago

    My workplace had no accommodations for a chronic health condition. Whether I missed two hours of work (e.g. leaving work early before the migraine got too intense for me to drive) or a full sick day, each absence was considered a separate “sick episode” for which there was a maximum. Over the maximum resulted in lost wages and being put on the “Attendance Awareness Program”, which was progrssive and punitive if I didn’t reduce my absenteeism. Even though I was part of a union the attendance program was designed to document and demonstrate a breach of contract and grounds for firing. One letter I received stated, “If you continue to fail in your obligation to attend work further action will be taken.” As my migraines increased to chronic, I tried desperately to keep up with my workload, working unpaid overtime, taking work home. I had less and less time and energy to advocate for myself regarding chronic illness accommodations. I was also determined to hold on to a career I loved and kept hoping my health would improve, that the latest drug or treatment would reduce the migraines. In the end, with migraines almost daily, I needed more sick time than any employer should be expected to accommodate. I worked in health care and was responsible for a caseload of patients; if I wasn’t at work no one else did my job. I was letting down my clients, my coworkers, my employer and the stress of trying to catch up all the time and do my job well worsened my symptoms. Some of my coworkers were understanding and supportive, others were critical and resentful of my absences, others just not understanding my challenges (eg continuing to wear strong fragrances in spite of a fragrance free policy in our hospital and me letting them know that it worsened my symptoms). I’m now on longterm disability (with regular demands from my insurance company to prove I’m still disabled), and grieving the loss of my career. It’s been five years. I’m continuing to try new treatments and hope to figure out a way to return to some type of work that allows the flexibility I need.

  • bluesguy
    3 months ago

    Great article! Sadly I believe this story is all too common. I had an experience something like your. I was harassed for filing FMLA paperwork, and even more so when my Doc. took me off work for a month to get my chronic migraines under control. Slowly responsibilities were being taken from me, they tried to deny my fmla alternate work schedule. It got to be far too stressful, and my Doctor put me on SDI. I had been working at this mental health facility as a therapist, and had been working there for over 20 years. Even in a field that one might assume would be more empathic, they were badly behind when it came to supporting someone with a disability. Standing up for ourselves is a must. Sadly, it often is not enough.

  • pennych
    3 months ago

    Thank you for sharing your story. My supervisors don’t understand, they think it’s just a headache and I need to take more medication and I will be ok. Somedays I just can’t make it to work and have to call in sick. I don’t like calling in sick but have no choice. I’m worried about how I will cope as the years progress.

  • darcyshirley
    3 months ago

    I just turned down a high paying dream job because I knew that 12 hour shifts with 3 hours of commuting would inevitably exacerbate my migraines to the point where I’d have to quit. I’m absolutely heart broken but my health has to come first or what is all the work for??

  • amandaotaylor
    3 months ago

    I went through the exact same scenario. I had an understanding manager and episodic migraines. I exhaused all FMLA and ADA disability time until I finally had to go on long term disability leave.

    My manager changed also as did the flexibility. Jobs were stripped from me. Opportunities were taken away all directly related to my migraines. I also had to go to our Associate Relations department and filed a five page detailed report of all of these interactions.

    It makes me so sad to hear that someone else has had to go through the same thing. It was the hardest time of my life and I’m still in this grey area with disability approval.

    Migraines took away the opportunity of having a career for me. I’m in the process of trying to figure out in this society, what does life look like to a 30 something that isn’t driven by career goals.

    I’m proud of you for standing up for yourself and even though you had to leave, think of the impact you made for others in the company with disability and migraines.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  • pennych
    3 months ago

    At what point can I apply for disability? I need to take my medication to get though a work shift and then when I exceed the allotted amount of pills per month then it becomes a rebound migraine. I feel so helpless and worried about finances. I’ve tried to find a work from home join but have not had any success yet.

  • amp254
    3 months ago

    I am 59 years old and have had migraines since in high school. As with your migraines they became worse and worse and are now chronic severe migraines. Mine are triggered by smells. All the scented products people use cause migraine for me, as well as smoke, car exhaust, etc. I had to quit working in 2013 due to the getting a migraine every day I worked. My migraines include head, neck and jaw pain, nausea, sensitivity to light and smells and sometimes vomiting. Only one person in the office I worked in tried to actually use unscented products to help me. There was a lot of gossip in the office about “my problem” and most people didn’t even try to understand and stop using their scented products. I never expected to not be able to work at the age of 53. I am on disability due to this condition since there really isn’t any place I can work that won’t make me sick. I have to find a different dentist now since the dental office I have been going to is burning scented candles and has so much other scented things there that it’s not worth it.

  • MidrinMan
    3 months ago

    Career?
    What career?

    Thank you for making me laugh.
    I needed that.

  • LilGypsyGal
    3 months ago

    Right? Im not laughing at the story though, just the thought of ever having a career again ‍♀️ I worked for over 25 yrs to my goal of owning a business… It was successful, till I could no longer run it due to migraines… I want to cry every time I think about it… I had my dream… migraine took it from me… now I deal the best I can

  • DinaMay
    3 months ago

    Thank you for this article, especially for pointing out the FMLA and EEOC. When I was working, it was mostly part time, in part due to migraines. At one point, as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I found it so difficult to power through a migraine that I was considering quitting. The thing was that even when I could carry on speaking English (with some difficulty), the migraine locked the mental filing cabinet containing my Spanish vocabulary. Trying to be creative, I would have the students play games designed to elicit their English.

    But one day I called in sick when the classes were having an end-of-session party. Why not? It might be hard to get a sub for a regular lesson day, but surely the class could party without me. But when the next session began, the administrator let me know she would fire me if I ever did that again.

    Thinking back on it, I think I should have stayed and, if she really did try to fire me after migraine sidelined me, I should have fought the dismissal. Rather than fight, However, I just started looking for another job. The one I found allowed me to work from home and paid better than teaching, so I was satisfied. But taking the easy way out did nothing to help any future teacher with disability. Ah well!

  • nana55
    3 months ago

    Tom,
    I, too, went through a very similar situation in my career as a migraineur. I am a registered nurse, and found myself missing work due to migraines more and more as they “progressed”( what a terrible word to define the DECLINE in my health) from intermittent migraines to episodic to intractable. Because I have been in healthcare my entire career, I knew about FMLA, and have used it on various occasions as well as recommending it for my employees. My administrator was also a nurse (I was a manager of an outpatient clinic), and she and I actually gave talks to other managers as well as to the corporate office on how intermittent FMLA works. It is very important as an employee, as well as the manager acting in the interest of the company, to have extremely well documented conversations between employee and boss. No situation is the same, and as such, each time FMLA is brought up, it becomes tricky. But having the conversations documented, may also become helpful if government disability or long term disability insurance through your employer becomes necessary. This is true in my case. Because my administrator and I both kept notes about my migraines and how it effected my ability to be at work, I was granted government disability the 1st time I applied. I am sorry that your 2nd supervisor made an already difficult time more difficult, but consider that your “lasting impression ” in the company. Know the hard time you went through will make it easier for the next person who has to use FMLA in that company.

  • Jennymomma1972
    3 months ago

    My migraines have increased in number and intensity over the past few years. I have them daily, and like you, it has affected the ability to function at my job. I am self employed which helps. What career were you in? Did you file for disability? Bless you and others who suffer with this disease.

  • deedeevee1
    3 months ago

    I am truly in awe of anyone that is still employed and dealing with chronic or intractable migraine disease. Half the time I cannot get anything accomplished in a day. I’m so impressed by those that manage to push through or muster on because they have no choice. I truly applaud you all. Because I simply cannot.

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