Migraine at Work: 13 Ways to Survive

13 ways to survive working with chronic illness

Migraine at Work: 13 Ways to Survive

I often get asked how I survive migraine at work living with migraine.  It’s a long complicated answer, but I do it with a lot of communication and accommodations. It comes with a full range of emotions from frustration to anger, gratitude to growth, annoyance to comical. 

This post contains memes that are meant in good humor and no seriousness.  They aren’t my creations but they made me laugh.

Migraine at my job

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Finding work that fits migraine and chronic illness can seem like an impossible task. A job that understands and accommodates my illness ends up getting my best.  The problem is, it’s REALLY HARD to find work that fits chronic illness needs. It’s all a tricky balance between what I am able to do vs what I want to do vs what I need to do vs what I have to do. Everyone is different and I wish you good luck in finding work that fits your needs!

1. Work Part-Time

I work a few days a week and seem to have letdown migraine attacks on my days off.  I save time for self-care during that day and save my spoons for when they are needed throughout the day and week. Previously, I worked full time and my migraine became chronic. I did not return to a paying job for several years. It’s very difficult to be sick enough to not work, or work less. The stress of not making enough for myself and my family is stressful! Yet a full-time high-stress job would not work for me at all so that’s not an option.

2. Use flexible work time, if possible

I am able to get a lot of my work done outside of the classroom.  I am also a busy mom and find that planning and prepping can be done once they go to bed.  Instead of staying late at school, I bring a lot of my work home and also plan ahead.  By being over-prepared I am able to relieve stress.  If I’m sick in bed and worrying about work, I get sicker.  When I have everything done, having a migraine for days doesn’t stress me out as much about work because I know I’m prepared.  Planning and being prepared makes my life, in general, much easier.

I am constantly battling whether I am ok enough to go to work or not. With chronic illness, attacks and flairs are unpredictable, and finding a job that is flexible with that is hard

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Tip: Know time-off policies and if a substitute is available

3. Find coworkers who support you

While working full time, my boss was arrogant and my coworkers were judgmental.  With my part-time job, my coworkers are supportive and my boss is understanding.  This benefits the group! I’m not motivated to work out of judgment or consequences but out of commitment and love for the job and workers, I call friends. Loving what I do and who I’m working with is a benefit to my health and work.

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4. Ask for accommodations at work 

I requested that my classroom is on the side of the building that does not get direct sun or heat.  I also have control over the lighting.  Heat and lights (fluorescent) are especially big triggers.  I use Axon Optics or Theraspecs glasses on days I need extra light protection for my eyes.  I use other lotions, oils, and natural products to treat myself topically. Control in my work environment decreases migraine triggers.

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Dealing with Migraine at Work

5. Communication

I found that when I disclosed that I had a chronic migraine to my boss at one job I was judged and at my current job was understood better.  The same goes for clients.  I found that the families I work for were very open and appreciated my honesty.  I was unsure what the feedback would be.  Understanding the children and families I work for has allowed me to personally connect more.  I feel like my families want the best for me as I want the best for them and mutual respect once again motivates me.

6. Manage Stress

With a part-time position, my stress has decreased tremendously.  I am able to focus on myself, my family, and other aspects of my life other than my job.  Stress was my main reason for turning episodic to chronic.  I now have a handle on how to deal with stress and my priorities are different.  As a teacher without children and now with children, my views on teaching are very different. I have always had a passion for teaching and love children.  The reward is huge!!!  Being someone who is making a difference every day and seeing growth in my students is so rewarding. 

It gives me pure joy and joy is a great medication! Find joy in your job.

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7. Set realistic goals and expectations

Putting pressure on myself to be something I’m not only raising stress.  I have realistic ideas of what I can do, what I want to do, and how I’m going to attain those goals.  Setting myself up for failure will only derail my treatment.  I set goals I know I can reach and am proud when I meet them.  A positive attitude and learning from the past allows me to move forward.

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8. Adjust Commute

Driving is extremely difficult with even a low pain-scale migraine.  At my old job, I had a longer commute and found that many days I was throwing up on the side of the road before and after work.  At times I liked it to decompress but most of the time was pained from the drive.  I now have a short drive that I can drive to with my eyes closed (don’t worry, I don’t but I could).

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9. Drink or eat water, coffee, and snacks

Caffeine can be a benefit or a migraine trigger.  Coffee is beneficial to my migraines and imperative at work! I teach small children…I need coffee! During my morning of teaching, I drink coffee before the students arrive and drink a huge water bottle throughout my day.   As a class, we have scheduled potty breaks and snack time so we all get time to refuel. 

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9. Sleep schedule

I wake up the same time every day whether I’m working or not.  Staying on a consistent sleep schedule in order to be refreshed and ready for my day. I live with a chronic illness so never feel refreshed but a schedule helps my migraine brain.

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10. Take breaks

A migraine attack can come on at any moment.  During the day, I have to take a break, focus, drink more coffee, water, or have a snack.  Just allowing 5 minutes of quiet and focused breathing and refueling makes a world of difference to my well being. In fact, we teach breathing and yoga in my preschool class, and that short break benefits all ages!

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12. Moving my body and distraction

There are days I go to work with a migraine and am completely consumed by my students.  The minute my students leave and all is quiet, the pain comes flooding back.  I’m so distracted and filled with endorphins while I’m at school that at the end of the day I’m punished more.  There have been days that I work till lunch and am in bed until the next day.  The distraction of a job that I love helps me get through many mornings.

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I have a job that I am active in which helps.  Stretching and moving keeps my body less tense.  I am not able to sit at a desk staring at a screen all day.  My body needs to move and my brain needs a break from technology.

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13. Money vs time

As a part-time employee in the teaching field, you can imagine I’m not a millionaire.   Working part-time, I do not make a lot of money but am able to do what I love with people I care for.  Sometimes money isn’t everything (although it pays for my medical expenses, so I really need it).

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 With all of this said, I found a dream job.  Not everyone gets to work part-time (either financially or in their field of interest).  Disability is difficult to get as a migraine sufferer and in most jobs, it is difficult to find balance.  Time off isn’t always possible without consequences and substitutes are not common. Falling behind on work is inevitable.  Finding coworkers that are friends is not a choice but a lucky draw.  The same goes for bosses.

All circumstances and lives are different.  I encourage you to find something you love.  Find a part-time job, work online, find a job that can be flexible, and a job that makes you happy.  Migraine is the definition of pain and unhappiness…..find something you love and make you better.  Easier written than done, I know!!!

To be honest, was not sure if I’d ever been able to go back to teaching with how severe my disease is.   Taking a chance at an offer I was given paid off.  I was very aware that it may not be possible, but I never let that deter me. Not every job works but I’m so glad I took that leap.

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Want to know more about migraine at work? Check out this migraine at work guide

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Sarah Rathsack

I tell stories of My Migraine Life. Living life through Migraine consists of advocacy, treatment, prevention, and searching for health and happiness in a positive honest way. My kids, husband, dog, family and friends motivate me to make a difference in the Migraine World.
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  1. writerkatgn on October 1, 2017 at 7:54 am

    I relate to,this post a lot! I work in education as well. I used to work in a different children related field that you’d think would be more flexible because it required more office work and less direct interaction with the kids, but I am thriving way more now. For ond, the kids are way less judgenental. I have found, like you, the ability to be open with my kids, parents, and bosses avout my illnesses, which is such a huge weight off my shoulders. I also went from full time to part. And I love being in a direct child interaction job. As strange as it may seem, you’re right, when kids are around I shift into that mode and am often able to forget about my pain for a while.

  2. mymigrainelife on October 1, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you have found a great balance. Good luck to you and your students!

  3. Rosalind Pearl on October 1, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    Amazing that you’re able to teach alongside facing the challenge of chronic pain! I have a part-time job where I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week… Thank God for social media marketing jobs! Life saver. Like you, I’m also lucky to have understanding bosses and colleagues. Great to hear the parents were on board for you, and brave of you to send a letter. May the spoons be in your favour! xx

  4. mymigrainelife on October 1, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks! I’m so glad you have found something that works for you too! May the spoons favor you also!

  5. beyoubestrong24 on October 2, 2017 at 11:51 am

    I feel so close to this post. I am a stay at home mom with chronic migraine. I want to go back to work soon and my last profession was teaching. I am having a struggle functioning at home, I have no idea how I will even land a job or work those hours with 2 young children now. I am so happy to hear your story. There are not many or really any part time jobs on my area. This is inspiring!

  6. mymigrainelife on October 2, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    I’m so glad I could inspire you, that’s the purpose in telling my story! Being a mom with migraine and 2 small ones at home is crazy hard! Sounds like we have a lot in common. Best of luck finding what best fits you!!

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