I’ve been thinking lately about how women manage their periods at work, especially when they have pain or struggle with a condition like endometriosis, PCOS, irregular cycles, anxiety, burnout or any cyclical symptoms, really.
In the days before periods became an open conversation, I hid my pain and diminished it. Well, I went along with the status quo culture at the time. I didn’t know when my period was coming until the day before. I’d find myself irritable and emotionally sensitive. Then, I would feel a twinge in my lower belly. I would get lightheaded and the anxiety would kick in. Back then, I was in a place where I a) didn’t understand my body and b) had immense fear of my menstrual cycle. Sitting at my desk I would pretend to be working while inside I was waiting to see if the twinge would turn into a raging storm before deciding what the next best course of action would be: go home, sit and wait or go to the bathroom. Often, I’d go to the bathroom and there were times where I’d faint over the toilet roll holder with pain, emerge some time later, acting as though nothing had happened. Crazy, I know!
Thankfully I’ve come a long way! I now (most of the time) no longer fear my own body and know what my needs are. Self-care around my cycle comes first and it’s non-negotiable. Here are some tips and insights I’ve learned along the way for working with the menstrual cycle in the workplace.
Track your Cycle
Knowledge is power. Get to know your menstrual cycle. On a basic level: know where you are in your cycle. Have an idea of when to expect your period and when you’re in ovulation. If you’re irregular, this can still help. Tracking your cycle over time will show trends and clues. Check out my video here on more reasons to do that and how. When I expect to be menstruating, I say no more, I get things prepared in advance and I’m kinder to myself. I then compensate with my super woman powers during ovulation. Now, I’m not perfect but I do my best here where I can.
Once you get to know your cycle, you can start to sync that up with your life, little by little. If you can, schedule meetings around your vulnerable days, get your writing done when you’re in a strong place, edit in inner autumn, give that presentation during ovulation etc. Whatever works for you! And when you can’t avoid that client presentation or business trip on the most vulnerable day – be super kind to yourself! Breathe!
The Period Drawer!
I had a drawer in work where I would keep a pretty bag with painkillers, a heat pack, herbal teas like a nice organic chamomile or marjoram, lavender oil to breathe in, and yes – a hot water bottle, just in case!
Wear loose clothing when you’re bloated, on your period or pms-ing. Treat yourself to a loose dress or trousers without a tight waistband. Get a super comfy bra that you feel good in. I love the wireless ones from intimissimi. Wear comfortable shoes. Wear a shawl and let yourself be quite literally draped in love when you’re feeling vulnerable. There’s something about creating a buffer for yourself, especially in a linear achievement-focused environment.
I’ve learned over the years that codeine can cause constipation, which leads to more period pain – avoid! In Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom, Dr. Christiane Northrup suggests taking an anti-inflammatory painkiller (like ibuprofen) at the onset of pain so that the prostaglandins don’t get out of whack. Simply put, nip the pain in the bud before it gets too bad. That avoids having to take more later. This works wonders for me! I’ve got a more in-depth blog for period pain management here.
Have a Plan
If you’re really struggling with something like endometriosis or severe dysmenorrhea, plan in advance. How can you get home, can you work from home? What will you need etc.? Who can you ask to call and emotionally support you? Take control where you can.
A lot of pain comes from resistance to it. Come back to the breath. Inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of five when pain or anxiety mount. Tell yourself you are safe, you are being held, you are not alone.
Flexibility of Hours
Don’t be afraid to enquire about flexibility to your schedule. Workplaces are becoming more open to people working from home. They want happy employees. Put your health first here. If you need to take a sick day, take it. Don’t even bother with feeling guilty. Life is too short.
And, if you have an official diagnosis such as endometriosis, then a company is obliged to make an accommodation for you in line with their legally binding duty of care towards employees. This often means allowing you to work from home.
Share your journey with a colleague or a trusted manager. The menstrual cycle has become a much more open and safe conversation to have. You’d be surprised at how compassionate people are. I used to tell myself that people didn’t want to know, especially men. I was very wrong!
Prep your meals in advance of your period if you can so that when you go home, all you have to do is heat it up. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg and drink water. Anything to get the bowels moving will reduce pain. Avoid sugar, caffeine and alcohol during menstruation.
Toxic Work Environments
Is the environment you work in contributing to stress? Are you losing sleep? Is there unhealthy communication? Is there any bullying going on? Unfortunately these issues arise in many workplaces and are often taboo. They are detrimental to our health and therefore our cycles. We are all human but sadly many people are stressed for various reasons in their personal lives and that can get projected in the workplace. If this is the case for you, go gently on yourself. Learn to build assertiveness skills. I can recommend this book. Remember, a good time to speak your truth and assert yourself is the inner autumn, the premenstrual time when our bodies want to give voice to truth. Detach emotionally when you can and know your boundaries. We can’t change others, just ourselves. Leave if you have to. Life is too short for unnecessary stress. Put your wellbeing first. I’ve left a few jobs for this reason and it always opened doors.
Self-talk and Mindset
It’s often difficult to sync our cycle, track our cycle or prepare, especially when we have a busy life. It really is all about making small and realistic changes for you. 1% changes can merely mean talking kindly to ourselves on our vulnerable days. It might not mean taking on less work but perhaps the mindset and approach to the work can be slower and gentle. Buffer yourself with inner kindness. From the inside, dignify your experience. The menstrual cycle is a life-death-life cycle that nourished us all in the womb. Listen to it. Honour it.