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Managing Pain in the Workplace

When Migraines Strike at Work

Emmy-winning broadcaster Serene Branson talks about working through her migraine.

When Emmy Award-winning television reporter Serene Branson suffered a migraine at work, her symptoms—incoherent speech, nausea, and dizziness—weren’t apparent only to her co-workers. At the time, Branson was covering the 2011 Grammy Awards and doing a live shoot at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A video of her report went viral on YouTube as viewers speculated that she may have had a stroke. In fact, she was experiencing transient aphasia or “migraine babble,” an uncommon and frightening symptom of a migraine.

For Ms. Branson, the medical emergency she experienced on the job not only prompted her to start taking better care of herself, but also spurred her to become an advocate for others with migraine.

In April 2018, Branson spoke at the Migraine World Summit, an online seminar featuring over 30 leading experts and speakers. Her topic was “How to Thrive in Your Career Despite Migraine.” (Robert Shapiro, MD, also spoke about work challenges with migraines: “Fighting Stigma: Coming Out’as a Person with Migraine.” See his advice below.)  


The Stats Are Significant

One in seven individuals or 1 billion globally suffer from migraine, which is more common than diabetes, epilepsy, and asthma combined, according to the Migraine World Summit. With such an impact, it’s no surprise that migraine can affect an individual’s career potential. A Migraine Impact Report conducted by drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company, included a survey of just over 1,000 American adults, including approximately 500 individuals diagnosed with migraine. Among the employed respondents diagnosed with migraines, nearly 70% said they have been less productive at work due to the condition. More than one-third of those respondents reported that they have missed out on opportunities at work or additional earnings potential because of migraines.

Additionally, some 45% of people with migraine and nearly one in five individuals who don’t have migraines say they know someone with migraines who had to leave the workforce or reduce their work hours as a result, according to a recent national public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America.

Just over 50% of people with migraine have said they think migraine sufferers are stigmatized because of their condition, according to the Research!America survey, although only an estimated 30% of the non-sufferers believe this to be true. The stigma can stem from the idea that people with migraine are lazy, fail to manage their condition, and refuse to work, explained many survey respondents.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Paula K. Dumas, producer and host of the Migraine World Summit and a migraine patient advocate. “In fact, the opposite is true—most people with migraine value their jobs and insurance so much that they plan ahead and over-deliver on commitments because they never know when an attack may strike.”

As part of the summit, Ms. Branson talked about the support she received from viewers and co-workers after her on-air medical emergency. Migraine sufferers tell her that they’ve showed their supervisors the video clip of her medical emergency. “People have told their boss, ‘Look, this is not just a headache. I’m not being a wimp or a wuss. This is debilitating and it can knock you out. It can affect your speech. It’s serious,’” she said.

Ms. Branson also spoke about changes she made in her personal life after the scary episode. “For me, it’s all about balance,” Branson said. “Work and a career are definitely important but if you’re not taking the time to care for yourself you’re of no use to your employer, spouse, and children.”


Self-Care Changes Can Make a Difference

Investing some time in self-care helped to reduce the incidence of her migraine attacks, shared Ms. Branson, and made it easier to have honest conversations with her employers. “It’s taking the time, not making the time,” she stressed.

For example, Branson realized that she needed to slow the pace a bit. As a wife and mom to three-year-old and six-month-old boys, the Los Angeles resident has become a “big fan” of naps. “I know it’s not always possible for people, but even on weekends, when the babies go down for a nap, rather than trying to be Super Mom and do the laundry and do the dishes, I nap when they nap because I know that is my window to take a minute,” she said.

In addition, Ms. Branson tries to stick to whole, minimally processed foods and does both yoga and pilates. She starts each morning (and her television workdays begin at 3:30 am!) with a big mug of hot lemon water. “It cleanses my system, jump starts my metabolism, and kind of detoxes my body,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the physical, but it’s also the mental aspect of just kind of cleaning everything out and starting fresh in the morning. An hour later, I’ll have some coffee, but one cup a day is usually my limit now.” (For many people, too much caffeine can be a migraine trigger, Ms. Dumas pointed out. Read about other symptoms.)

 Ms. Branson also has learned to say “no: when asked to take on extra work assignments. This way, she gets more sleep. “And that means when my alarm goes off at 3:30 am, I know I went to bed early enough and am getting the rest my body needs,” she said.

Ms. Branson’s migraine attack frequency further improved after she began to take a preventive (or prophylactic) medicine and also when she got pregnant. “For me, that hormone shift coupled with the fact that I was taking care of myself and listening to my body a little bit more meant that my migraines subsided and became fewer and farther between,” she explained. Read about other treatment options.

Making Your Migraine Known at Work

Her advice to those who must cope with migraine at work is to learn as much as possible about the condition and to share this knowledge with your employer. “The more information you can arm yourself with and take to your employer, the better,” she said. “The more people who speak out about it, the more employers and co-workers will take it seriously,”

Misconceptions about migraine abound, she said, but she hopes that over time the public will become better educated about the condition. “It isn’t just a headache that goes away when you pop a couple of pills,” she said. “A headache doesn’t cause you to speak incoherently and have numbness on one side. It is a true and debilitating disease when people can’t manage their symptoms.” Read about other types of migraines.

Also presenting at the virtual summit, Dr. Robert Shapiro, a professor of neurology at the University of Vermont and founder of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy, agreed that migraine is a misunderstood disease, leaving many to hide their pain in the workplace.

Dr. Shapiro said it is important for individuals to “come out” at work about their experience with migraine. “People are taught very early and emphatically to stay quiet about their migraine disability,” he said. “They are told, don’t put your hand up. You’ll be punished for coming out.” And, he added, since people with migraine generally “look well,” persuading them to speak out is hard. “And this is part of the problem,” Dr. Shapiro added.

Read more about how to communicate invisible pain to coworkers and caregivers.

Dr. Shapiro, who suffers from occasional migraine attacks himself, said “there is a need for remediation, and we need to take active steps to take care of the problem,” he said. “It won’t resolve on its own.”

For Ms. Branson, being pro-active about self-care and making sure that colleagues are educated about migraines is important. “I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my overall health and wellness,” she said. “And, I advise you become an expert in the field of migraines and make sure you do your best to convey the seriousness of migraines to employers and co-workers," she told the World Migraine Summit audience.      

Updated on: 06/16/20
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