Managing the Workplace with Cluster Headaches

I am fortunate to work for myself part-time after I was laid off at the start of the pandemic. That’s given me a whole new sense of freedom in managing episodic cluster headaches. But there was a learning curve when I worked in an office, and even working from home for a mid-size company required some adjustments.

Lay the groundwork at orientation

It’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of a medical condition. However, I still avoid talking about cluster headaches during job interviews to play it safe. The perfect time to discuss my condition and needs was during my intake with HR and my manager.

I explained that I have a form of trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia called cluster headaches. That the condition causes bouts of head pain for 1-2 months twice a year. I let them know I would need access to my oxygen tank. They were understanding and asked that I kept them in the loop when attacks started.

There were times I needed to leave right away to get to my car for oxygen, go home for the day, or inject myself in the bathroom. I never experienced grief from coworkers, managers, or HR for my medical condition. I believe that’s because I gave them realistic expectations for me as an employee during these times.

Keep medications and treatments on hand

My sumatriptan injections are always on my person (except that one time where an auto-injector went off in my purse, leaving me without any treatment options—but that’s another story). I carry my Frovatriptan pills with me as well. The injections work within five minutes, and the tablets can give me 8-12 hours of pain-free time.

Other people with cluster headaches leave oxygen tanks in their car or carry a tiny tank in a backpack that they keep at their desk. Both of these are great options that I luckily haven’t needed yet.

Understand your rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects your rights to work with reasonable accommodations for your medical condition. An employer can’t fire you because of a health concern that keeps you out of the office or working at a limited capacity. It’s also illegal to use that reason not to hire you in the first place. The catch is that if your company wants to fire you because your headache disorder is getting in the way of their bottom line, this act doesn’t stop them from finding another reason. However, you have options if their reasoning is clearly because of your disability.

Disability is not a dirty word

Headache disorders such as cluster headaches and migraine disease have a terrible rapport in the public eye. “It’s just a headache” is a phrase I want to strike from the English language. These are genuine and disabling medical conditions that require ongoing care and treatment. People with chronic headaches are eligible for disability because their attacks prevent them from working full time or maintain a job.

Managing the workplace with daily attacks of head pain is doable, but it requires being open with your managers and prepared with your treatments.

What’s helped you make the office or work from home experience easier with migraine disease or cluster headaches?

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