‘I have to act like Mary Poppins on crack’: menstrual health in the workplace

Guest post by Clare Knox, founder of See Her Thrive, and a business psychologist on a mission to tackle reproductive health taboos in the workplace

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I see people post on our social media, day in, day out, about their struggles with female-related health conditions at work. As an ex-secondary school teacher with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD – a severe form of PMS) I have experienced my own monthly battle against fatigue, irritability, depression and emotional outbursts.

Thankfully, I responded well to SSRIs, and things seem to be under control (for now). But, my own horrendous experience made me wonder how other women cope with PMDD at work, and I embarked on a journey to find out.

What I discovered through my research is that there is a huge lack of awareness and support for menstrual and reproductive health conditions in the workplace. I also found that these chronic disorders can actually be classed as a disability, and employers should be making reasonable adjustments to help people manage their symptoms at work. Sadly, this is not happening, and many talented women are leaving the workforce as a result.

Many of the symptoms associated with disorders like PMDD can make work incredibly difficult. We know that hormonal changes in the premenstrual phase alter the physical state of the brain, which can affect focus, concentration, attention to detail and decision making. On top of this, our ability to regulate emotions is compromised, so many women experience outbursts of aggression or crying. This can be hugely embarrassing and detrimental in the workplace.

But, in the case of PMDD, perhaps the most difficult symptom to manage at work is not wanting to interact with other people. The disorder can make you withdraw from everyone around you, almost like being sucked into a black hole. In my case, I didn’t have the energy to engage with anyone. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to leave my house. I didn’t want to be around people at all. I just wanted to be left under my dark, PMDD cloud, to ride out the storm. Alone.

And, like many other women, I didn’t tell my employer. See, we have an epidemic of women going to work, putting on a mask and battling physical and emotional pain. As one woman eloquently put it, “I have to act like Mary Poppins on crack”.

Many women are afraid to disclose their condition because reproductive health just isn’t talked about in the workplace. Women are also worried that they will be perceived as weak or incompetent by colleagues, being overlooked for promotion or even dismissed. This is more apparent for women in more senior roles, or those working in male-dominated industries.

In addition, the invisible and silent nature of reproductive health conditions means that many women are concerned about not being believed. And then there are people who dismiss and trivialise these chronic conditions as “just period pain”, having never experienced menstrual problems themselves (and yes, we are talking about other women here, not just men!)

We know that bottling up emotions and “putting on a brave face” is not a positive way of coping. It can lead to long term health problems, as well as exacerbate symptoms. And those emotions have to be released at some point, which is often why our partners and loved ones get it in the neck! So, the wider impact of struggling at work could be greater than we think.

We also know that women with PMDD, for example, tend to over-compensate on their good days. This can result in them working for longer or taking work home, or over-committing. Again, over a long period of time, this can lead to burnout.

Sadly, in many cases, employers are either oblivious to the situation, or they’re aware and don’t care. One woman I met, for example, attempted suicide as a result of her PMDD (15% of women with the condition are thought to attempt suicide) and was given a disciplinary for missing her shift at work, despite the fact that her partner had called to explain the situation. There are other women on Stage 2 and 3 absence capability measures because of (unavoidable) time off work as a result of chronic reproductive health conditions.

It became clear to me very quickly that female health is overlooked in the workplace. So, I retrained as a Business Psychologist, set up See Her Thrive, and am now on a mission to educate employers about reproductive health disorders and improve support systems for women in the workplace.

We need to acknowledge reproductive health as a serious workplace issue and improve workplace support systems for our female employees. At the end of the day, men and women are incredibly different species with different needs. It’s time we recognise this in the workplace.

There are lots of things employers can do to support reproductive health in the workplace. A really good place to start is to provide awareness training for staff, as this can open up conversation and break the stigma. Reasonable adjustments, such as flexible working, are also considered helpful by women with reproductive health conditions.

Finally, if you are struggling with a reproductive health condition in the workplace, I offer the following advice:

  • Tell your manager/HR/employer about your condition, especially if you are struggling. Without that information, your employer is unable to provide support or make reasonable adjustments and you are leaving yourself open to unfair treatment.
  • Track your workplace triggers and create an action plan to help manage them. A
    template is free to download from our website.
  • Accept that you are going to have good and bad days. Be gentle with yourself when
    you are struggling and adjust your workload and expectations to reflect what you can realistically cope with.
  • Be aware of taking on too much or overworking on your good days!
  • Talk to someone you trust. It helps.

Find See Her Thrive online at: www.seeherthrive.com

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