Options for Employers When An Employee with Migraines Is Missing Work

The American Migraine Research Foundation reports that migraines affect 39 million people in the United States. More than 90% of migraine sufferers report that they are unable to work while suffering from a migraine. If you are an employer, that means there is a good chance that you have at least one employee with migraines who has missed work due to one. It’s even more likely there are several more who suffer from migraines but don’t disclose it. Those missed days start to add up.

The American Migraine Foundation reported that migraines cost American businesses more than $29 billion a year in lost time and productivity. Migraines are a costly health issue and one that employers can’t afford to ignore.


So as an employer, what can you do when an employee is missing work due to migraines? It’s important to know their employment rights and how you can reasonably accommodate them. Employers also need to know what they may be able to do to reduce migraine triggers at work and keep employees healthy, happy, and working.

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Migraines and Employment Rights

Employees with migraines have the same protection that an employee with another major illness or disability would have. That may be surprising news to some employers. 38% of surveyed supervisors said migraines weren’t always a justifiable reason to call in sick to work.

The stigma of calling in “just for a headache” keeps many employees from seeking treatment or being honest about why they can’t make it in. According to employment law and the federal government, though, migraines count as a serious illness. In some cases, they may even qualify as a disability.

Can An Employee With Migraines Use FMLA?

One very important thing employers should note is that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can be used by migraine sufferers. FMLA allows certain employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12 month period for a serious health condition, including a migraine.

If you have an employee with migraines who is taking a lot of time off, they should consider getting onto FMLA. This protects their employment status as well as their health insurance benefits. Employees can take the 12 weeks of unpaid leave all at once or broken up into smaller chunks of time, and they don’t have to use it all. For employees missing work due to migraines, they are more likely to end up taking a day here or there as needed.

Are Migraines Covered Under the ADA?

Some migraines may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The determination comes on a case by case basis for each individual. For migraines to qualify as a disability, an individual assessment will take into account:

  • Whether the migraines are serious enough to limit the individual’s ability to perform the job
  • Whether the individual would be otherwise qualified to do the job
  • How frequent and severe the migraines are

If an employee’s migraines are severe enough to meet the criteria to be a disability, the employer will need to provide reasonable accommodations for them. However, it is the employee’s responsibility to request an accommodation. This can be an informal conversation to start with. Formalize the plan through written documentation to protect both the employee and the business.

Can An Employee Lose Their Job For Having Migraines?

When an employee is missing work due to migraines, it can start to affect their job performance. That doesn’t mean employers can terminate employment without going through a process, first. This should include:

  • An interactive process. This is a discussion between the employee and the employer. It should focus on what job roles are being affected by the migraines and what reasonable accommodations the employer could make.
  • Medical certification. The employee will need to get paperwork filled out by their doctor that indicates they need special accommodation or that they need to take FMLA time.
  • Discussing the situation with the company’s labor law expert. Employment laws vary state by state, so before you terminate an employee, it’s important to make sure you aren’t leaving your company vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit in the future.

In most cases, making reasonable accommodations for an employee with migraines will be far easier (and less expensive) than terminating them. Most employees are looking for small changes to their work environment or flexibility with their hours. That will allow them to do their job without sacrificing their well-being. Approach the situation with an open mind, and it may surprise you to find the proposed solutions are very simple.

Making Reasonable Accommodations for Migraine Sufferers

Once an employee requests an accommodation, it’s up to the employer to work with them to find solutions and put them in place so the employee can continue to do their job. Some of the most common accommodations for migraine sufferers include:

  • Offering flexible hours. If the job doesn’t require an employee to be there at a certain time, consider flex time. Flexible hours can allow the employee to work when they are able to without worrying about punching a clock.
  • Allowing them to work from home. This doesn’t mean they’ll be working when they are dealing with a migraine. What work-from-home does allow, though, is the ability to control their environment when they feel a migraine coming on. This could help them reduce the severity of migraines or prevent them altogether.
  • Moving their desk. Some migraines are triggered by lighting, smells, or noise. Simply moving their workspace or altering the environment a little can help a lot.
  • Creating migraine-friendly break rooms. Migraine sufferers may find relief in a dark, quiet room. If you have the space for it, create a migraine-friendly break room. This can be as simple as a comfortable couch in a dimly-lit room.

The most important thing an employer can do for an employee is to be willing to listen to their needs. Instead of assuming you know what they need, ask them. This can help you start a dialogue about what would be useful and how you can meet their needs so that they can do their job.

Reducing Migraine Triggers in the Office

It’s not clear what exactly causes migraines. Research indicates it could be hormonal, environmental, or a misfire in the brain somewhere. What is clear, though, is that there are many environmental factors that can trigger a migraine. If employers can help reduce those triggering factors, they may see the number of sick days due to migraine attacks go down. That means a boost to productivity and reduced insurance costs, too.

Some of the most common triggers are those associated with the five senses, including loud noises and strong smells. Implementing a no-perfume policy and encouraging coworkers to keep noise to a minimum can be a good start towards creating a migraine-friendly workplace.

Stress is another common trigger for migraine sufferers. Some jobs are naturally more stressful than others. However, employers may be able to help by moving the employee into a position they find to be less stressful. They may also offer assistance through job-sharing with another employee.

Finding those solutions can make a big difference to the well-being of the employee without any loss of productivity for the employer.

Why Lighting May Be Your Biggest Issue

One of the worst triggers for many office workers, though, is the overhead lighting. Fluorescent lighting can be particularly triggering for migraine sufferers. Fluorescent lighting creates a bright, unnatural light that can be harmful to those with a light sensitivity due to migraines. The overhead lighting from fluorescents can also create a lot of glare on the computer screen, another trigger for headaches and migraines.

There are some studies that show the biggest issue with fluorescent lights could be the blue light they emit. According to an article from Harvard Medical School, research shows that blue light can trigger headaches even in those who are blind. So reducing the blue light can reduce the number of headaches happening for an employee with migraines.

That doesn’t mean you need to take on all the time and expense of retrofitting your existing lighting fixtures, though. If your office uses fluorescent lighting, consider looking for ways to mask the blue light and make it easier on employees’ eyes.

Items like tube covers and light covers can create more natural lighting while also reducing the glare on computer screens. The covers can block UV radiation, which can trigger other health conditions like lupus photosensitivity and fibromyalgia. The covers are much less expensive than retrofitting all your lighting fixtures and take just minutes to install. It’s a simple fix for one of the office’s most harmful migraine triggers.

Make Great Light offers the most advanced light covers in the industry. The selection of lighting and tube covers give you the ability to increase productivity through the improvement of your office lighting. It could be a simple change that makes the biggest difference to the health and happiness of your employees, as well as a boost to your bottom line. Check out the available lighting solutions today and place your order for better office lighting.

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