Migraine at work

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Being productive at work is hard enough these days. Overflowing inboxes, countless meetings, and incessant instant messages can easily derail the day’s to do list. Factor in the additional pressures faced by anyone living with migraine, along with the multiple migraine triggers present in most work settings, and you can find yourself stressed, a known migraine trigger. So how can you minimize your migraine triggers and migraine attacks at work, while maximizing productivity?

Migraine experts Professor Sabina Brennan, a psychologist specializing in brain health from Trinity College Dublin, and Elena Ruiz de la Torre, President of the European Headache Alliance, have given us their top tips on how to manage your migraine at work, including helping your co-workers understand the full impact of migraine and some tried and tested ways of minimizing migraine triggers at work.

Start your day with a positive accomplishment

To manage migraine at work, stress reduction is key. Chances are you, like so many of us, arrive at work and immediately start checking emails, but our experts believe this can be detrimental because it distracts from the day’s immediate priorities and can send the whole day off course.

Professor Sabina Brennan recommends you start every morning by accomplishing one bite-size task, thus setting a “can-do” tone for the rest of the day. "Get one thing checked off your to-do list before you even open your email," she says. "If you do this every morning, you’ll soon see the benefits of starting the day with a positive sense of accomplishment under your belt."

"Perceived loss of control and the absence of predictability can activate a stress response," she adds. "The key is to start taking back control. Put yourself in the driving seat, stop reactively responding to everyone else’s demands, and introduce some predictability into your work day." Easier said than done, right? Not so, says Sabina. She recommends these easy adjustments for a productive work day:

  • Structure your time, as much as possible, so that you check emails, return calls, action tasks, or take lunch and breaks at roughly the same time each day
  • Create a to-do list that has urgent or deadline-sensitive tasks at the top, and less urgent tasks at the bottom
  • Focus a majority of your time and energy on those items at the top of your to-do list
  • Only check emails at designated times during the day, or every couple of hours
  • Remember to delegate work where you can. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

If you can find methods to help you feel organised and in control, you can make it easier to manage migraine at work.

Get a handle on stress

Stress is a known migraine trigger,1 and effectively managing daily stress may help with your migraine at work. "A little bit of stress can go a long way, motivating us to attain our goals and meet daily challenges," says Sabina, "but poorly managed chronic stress can impact negatively on our health, and increase risk of migraine attacks."

So what should you do when you feel your stress levels climbing? "Stop what you are doing and move around," says Elena Ruiz de la Torre. "When you feel under pressure, go for a quick walk, preferably outside. You may well feel you cannot spare the time, but a little head-space should help you find the perspective to get back on track."

Sabina agrees and also recommends using mindfulness and meditation techniques to help manage stress. "Take deep breaths to dampen down the original stress response you experience," she says. "This will calm your nervous system and help you appraise the situation. Mindfulness keeps you in the moment, so that you’re less likely to focus on potential negative outcomes or spiral into more stress."

Create a trigger-free workspace

Small adjustments to your workspace can help reduce the likelihood that your environment may trigger a migraine attack at work. "Don’t sit in one place for a long period of time," says Elena. "When you are seated, make sure your back is well placed and you’re not slouching. Or better yet, try a standing station rather than a seated one. Your computer screen should always be directly in front of you at eye level."

Professor Sabina Brennan recommends other simple fixes to your office desk to help limit migraine triggers at work:

  • Adjust your computer monitor’s refresh rate to 'high' to minimize flickering on the screen
  • Place your monitor between 20 and 40 inches away from your face
  • Reduce the glare from your monitor by installing an anti-glare screen
  • Increase the font size or percentage at which you view documents to reduce eye strain
  • If you’re seated all day, take regular breaks to stand and stretch, even if you have to schedule reminders to get up out of your seat

Small lifestyle changes can help you to reduce the chances of developing a migraine at work.

Eat a healthy lunch away from your desk

The mind and body like predictability, notes Professor Sabina Brennan. Just as we all benefit from having a good sleep routine, it's important to eat at roughly the same time every day too. "Have a healthy lunch, preferably one free of additives and preservatives," says Sabina. "Forget working through lunch, or having lunch at your desk. A great antidote to stress is to get out in the fresh air if you can."

Or better yet, here’s an idea: invite your colleagues to lunch away from your desks. Socializing will give you and your work colleagues the opportunity to switch off for a while. This can help you manage your migraine at work while helping you build stronger connections in the office.

Speaking with your employer

Finally, you shouldn't have to keep your migraine to yourself at work. Being open with your employer about a recognized medical condition — and the things that can help create a trigger-free environment — can help foster dialogue and understanding.

"It’s important to acknowledge migraine is a medical condition, just like asthma and diabetes are medical conditions,” says Sabina. "It's a neurological condition, and you should not feel embarrassed speaking up about migraine."

"Feel free to open up to your employer about your migraine," says Elena. "Explain what you know to be your triggers, and how you can both work towards a solution that will keep you productive in the workplace."

Simon Evans, Chief Executive of Migraine Action, shares his advice on what you, your employers and colleagues can do to help create an understanding work environment for migraine and help more people cope with migraine at work.


  1. NHS Choices. Migraine. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Last accessed: June 2021]
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