Why Kathryn and millions of other Aussies are suffering at work: ‘It’s exhausting’

There are 4.9 million Australians who experience migraines and two-thirds of them are women.

Kathryn Stanislawski is one of the millions of Aussies who suffer from migraine attacks and she says it’s had a massive impact on her work life.

The 45-year-old started getting migraines four years ago and said they were initially hormonally triggered, but now occurred more randomly and frequently, with things like bright lights and strong smells able to set them off.

“Ultimately, it’s come to the point where half of my month could be taken up with migraine,” Kathryn told Yahoo Finance.

“It’s not always that full-blown migraine phase, where I have to be in bed, but I still just have this pain in my head … It’s really exhausting to always have that sensation and to not know if it’s going to amp up or go away.”

 Kathryn Stanislawski and her son Lachlan with their dog Lexy on a bike ride enjoying time together on a non-migraine day off from work..
Aussie mum Kathryn Stanislawski said migraine limits the type of work she can do and her career prospects. (Source: Supplied)

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Kathryn takes medication to help manage her symptoms but it has side effects that impact her work.

“What I’ve found is that it impacts on my cognition. So, while I might not be in such pain, my cognition is impacted so I can’t actually function at work properly,” she said.

“It impacts the type of work that I can do. I’m not as quick as I would normally be. I can’t find the words in my head. They are further away and I can see them, but I can’t get them out.”

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Kathryn, who works for the Victorian government, said she experienced a “huge shock” when she tried to take notes at work recently and realised she couldn’t do it.

“I realised my career and the things I can do in my work, the doors are closed for some things at the moment because of migraine … It really dawned on me that day how it is really changing my opportunities.”

Migraines impacting work life

Kathryn isn’t the only Aussie woman whose migraines have a negative impact on their work life and career progression.

New research by women’s healthcare company Organon found 41 per cent of women who experience migraine attacks at work believed they were damaging their career prospects, including promotions and bonuses.

More than half (60 per cent) said migraines could impact their productivity and concentration, something Deloitte Access Economics estimates costs workplaces $16.3 billion per year.

Despite 4.9 million Australians experiencing migraines - and two-thirds of those being women - only around half (48 per cent) felt comfortable speaking to their manager about it.

Still a ‘high level of stigma’

Migraine and Headache Australia director Carl Cincinnato said there was still a “high level of stigma” surrounding migraine sufferers in the workforce.

“You are still considered to be a sensitive person or a hypochondriac by a large majority of the population, unfortunately,” Cincinnato told Yahoo Finance.

Cincinnato also lives with migraine and said, at its worst, he was having attacks six times a week. This forced him to quit his job at a Fortune 500 company about 10 years ago.

Carl Cincinnato.
Carl Cincinnato previously had six migraine attacks a week. Now he has them six times a year. (Source: Supplied)

“It had a huge impact on my performance and ultimately my career. I resigned from that job and from that career - and the potential that had - just to get a grip on my health,” he said.

Cincinnato said he had seen other colleagues with migraine have their condition dismissed by managers, so he made the decision to not disclose it to his employer.

While he was hopeful times had changed, Cincinnato said the decision whether to disclose migraine was an individual one.

“The best thing someone with migraine can do is get information about what their rights are, what accommodations they may be able to get if they tell people about it, and go into that conversation with their eyes open and a plan in place,” he said.

Workplace education needed

Cincinnato said workplace education was the best way to dismantle stigma. Practically, workplaces can also help people living with migraine by providing flexible work arrangements.

“That is the most helpful thing you can do for someone with migraine. If they can go home, take medication and get to a quiet, dark room, they can recover from that attack quicker,” Cincinnato said.

For Kathryn, she said understanding in the workplace was all she wanted.

“When I’m a bit grumpy some days it’s not at anyone in particular it’s just because there is something in my head trying to push my sinuses and my eyeballs out of my head,” she said.

“I’m trying to ignore it and get on with my day but it feels like there is something in my head and it’s pretty hard to ignore.”

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