Last year, to mark Migraine Awareness Week, I wrote a blog post here about migraines, what they are and how they affect me, and how I wasn’t going to let them limit my ambition or achievement in my life and work. I also wrote about where you can find advice and support, and generally to raise awareness of this and other visible and invisible conditions.
I was overwhelmed by the response from colleagues across the Civil Service and beyond – both from fellow sufferers and those previously unaware of the severe effects that migraines can have and how they can show support. Colleagues across departments started to email me directly or stop me on Whitehall to thank me for being so honest about what the condition is like and how it directly affects our work and wellbeing.
Migraines are medically characterised as ‘attacks’ because the pain literally attacks the head, and the rest of the body endures acute pain that can last from a few hours to a few days.
I have suffered from migraines since childhood. However, many people are unaware of just how debilitating migraines can be, that in some cases they are recognised as a disability, or that there is still no medical cure for this often lifelong condition.
My own symptoms are an intense headache – as if someone is repeatedly hammering on the same spot on my head – nausea, aura (I literally see flashing lights), and desperate sensitivity to light (thank goodness for polarised sunglasses), sound, smell and touch.
Common misunderstandings include that the sufferer can control migraines by avoiding what triggers them; and, in my case, that when I’m having an attack I’m drunk – because of the sunglasses, wobbly movement and slow reactions due to the pain. It’s true that alcohol, smoking, too much caffeine and some foods, like cheese and citrus fruits, can trigger a migraine. However, I do not drink alcohol or smoke, only have two cups of tea a day and avoid all food triggers.
I was initially inspired to write about my migraines because of the reaction of my manager who, after one attack came on at work, approached me and said: “I noticed the temperature change today and was worried you might get a migraine – go home, rest and don’t worry, we’ll handle things here.”
I was deeply moved by this. It made me focus on how great it would be if more employers and work colleagues understood migraines and other invisible conditions; and, crucially, if we all recognised that such visible and invisible conditions, while debilitating, should not limit our ambitions, career and life goals.
Now, spurred on by the amazing response to my blog I want to further raise awareness of migraines and seek to debunk the myth that they are ‘just a bad headache’. Also, to highlight that other invisible conditions exist but that sufferers can cope better if we all make an effort to understand them.
So, for this year’s Migraine Awareness Week (1-7 September), I have partnered with Civil Service HR, the Civil Service Disability Champion, Sir Philip Rutnam, and The Migraine Trust to deliver a programme of awareness and how to be an inclusive employer.
This includes issuing a plethora of digital and hard-copy posters to government departments. These show migraine sufferers sharing their experiences and how they are supported through workplace adjustments, and by understanding and inclusive managers and colleagues. We are also delivering workshops to share how sufferers with invisible and visible conditions are all around us, and how line managers can effectively support employees with migraines to thrive in the workplace.
We should all show empathy towards colleagues with these conditions, but we need the knowledge and mindfulness to do so. That’s what Migraine Awareness Week is all about, and by joining with the Migraine Trust in this campaign the Civil Service acknowledges its role as an employer in supporting sufferers from migraine and helping them manage the condition’s impact on them in the workplace.
We can all achieve our goals if we have the right support and understanding. I have many goals still in my sights, and my migraines, while a reality, will not stop me!
There are still a few places left at the awareness-raising events. Anyone interested in attending should email firstname.lastname@example.org by close of play on Tuesday 3 September.