Picture the scene: you’re sitting at your desk and your period cramps are excruciating. It feels like somebody’s using their fingernails to slowly, methodically scrape away chunks of your uterus. All you can do is curl up in silent protest and wait for the pain to gradually subside.
Except you can’t, because you’re at work. Your boss doesn’t know the level of your discomfort: how exhausted your period makes you; or the waves of nausea; or that your joints are aching; or that you have to keep running to the loo because of dodgy loose stools. You’ve just got to sit there, and do your job exactly how you would if you weren’t on your period.
Excruciating period cramps, heavy bleeding and pressure to show up to work mean we’re losing nearly nine days of productivity per year.
A 2019 study conducted by the BMJ found that period cramps see 13.8% of women and AFAB individuals taking time off work during their periods; and that 80.7% go through ‘presenteeism’ (turning up to work but struggling to be productive) for an average of 23.2 days per year. This presenteeism results in an average of 8.9 days’ worth of productivity lost per year. Let that sink in for a moment: excruciating period cramps, heavy bleeding and pressure to show up to work mean we’re losing nearly nine days of productivity per year.
“Our research has shown that over a quarter of women [and AFAB individuals] surveyed had recently taken time off work because of their period,” says Rachel Murray, Head of Employee Health & Wellbeing at BUPA UK. “However, over a third wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing the period as the reason for their absence, and would instead use another excuse, like having a stomach bug.” As for why? Well, Jacqueline Gualtieri summed up one reason pretty succinctly in her Vitals article: “Women [and AFAB individuals] who take time off due to period pain fear being viewed as fragile by their coworkers and less valuable than a man by their employers.” And so, they carry on – and it’s hard.
I’ve been there. It’s bad enough when the period cramps interfere with daily activities; but having to merrily type out emails, smile at colleagues and be eloquent on the phone – all while it feels like your uterus is being attacked in the same way a steak is attacked with a knife and fork – feels impossible. And that’s just the desk jobs. I worked in a bookshop once, and having to run back and forth between the shelves and the till (not to mention having to be energetic and friendly) was like a form of torture. I have no idea how teachers do it. Or dancers; or waiting staff; or cabin crew. Or anyone, for that matter.
Managing period cramps at work can be a difficult, painful, uncomfortable thing to do – not least because the UK hasn’t yet caught up with Spain, who passed Europe’s first paid menstrual leave law earlier this year. So we’ve gathered together a few hints and tips for anyone who, like me, struggles to plaster a smile on their face, engage their brain and produce some form of work (good one) while struggling with period symptoms.
What are some common period symptoms?
Well, first, of course, there’s the dreaded cramping in the pelvic area. “[Period] cramps come from asymmetric contraction[s] of the uterus, a muscular organ,” says certified nurse midwife Kristin Mallon, Co-Founder and CEO at FemGevity. “These can happen during, before or after your period. These cramps are caused by hormonal changes that signal to the brain to shed the lining of the endometrium.
The period affects the whole body. “There can be any number of symptoms that [people with periods] feel, ranging across any system: like headaches, vision changes, sometimes even changes in athletic performance, bowel changes, urinary changes, libido changes,” Mallon says. Not to mention:
- Joint stiffness
- Back ache (especially lower back pain)
- Mood changes. “PMDD is a known concept; but mild versions of this can also be experienced, from insomnia, anger, rage, depression and anxiety,” Mallon concludes.
How might period symptoms affect someone’s ability to work?
“Struggling with period pain can make daily tasks feel a lot more difficult than usual,” says Murray. “Dealing with cramps can make you feel a lot less productive, and, in some cases, it might affect your ability to work at all. A recent YouGov survey showed almost a quarter of [people] who currently menstruate report that their period pain affects their ability to work every time, or most times they get their period.”
And it’s not just the pain. “Being on your period can affect you mentally, too, making you feel more irritated, anxious or angry than usual,” Murray continues. “This may also affect your ability to focus.”
Of course, period symptoms – and how they’re experienced and managed at work – are not a ‘one size fits all’. “Every woman who menstruates experiences it differently – some may experience little to no pain when they’re on their period, and others may be in so much pain that [it] means they can focus on little else,” Murray explains. “Some may find that sitting down helps them to manage period cramps, whereas others may struggle with a desk job while they’re on their period; preferring to keep gently moving to alleviate symptoms.”
How might someone manage period pain at work?
Firstly, it’s important to see a doctor if you’re getting severe cramps. “If you’re in persistent or severe pain because of your period and haven’t seen a health professional about it – please do,” says Murray. “Your pain could be related to other conditions, [like] endometriosis, so it’s important to seek help and get you on the right course of treatment.”
Assuming there’s no underlying cause, there are a few pain-minimising routes available to you when it comes to the workplace. “Aside from treating an associated cause like endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids [or] ovarian cysts, there are several remedies to try for painful periods,” says Mallon. “Medication recommendations usually include NSAIDs or contraceptives such as pills, patches or rings. Exercise and heat are also known to be effective in managing dysmenorrhea.”
As for how to implement these remedies for reducing pain into your working day: for Murray, preparation is key. “Learn what medications, natural relief and practices work for you to help minimise disruption to your working day, where you can,” she advises. “It’s always a good idea to be prepared around the time you expect your period. If you have access to a workplace locker, try keeping a spare hot water bottle or a heat patch to offer you relief if you need it. Make sure you keep over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen in your bag for pain relief.”
And when it comes to other ways to manage your period symptoms in the workplace, Murray has some further suggestions:
“If you’re able to work from home, doing so around the time of your period may help you access methods to help with pain relief quicker, and help you rest after work for longer,” Murray concludes.
How could I broach the topic of period symptoms with their employer?
“Speaking to your employer about period pain may feel intimidating, especially if it’s making work feel impossible,” says Murray. “[But] having a conversation with your employer can help them to better support you during this time so that you can feel more at ease when you’re working [while] on your period.
“If you have a regular one to one catch up with your employer, this may be the ideal time to talk about how you’re struggling,” Murray continues. “You could start off the conversation by saying something along the lines of: ‘You may have noticed that I have been finding work more difficult sometimes, this is because I’ve been struggling to manage period pain. I wanted to let you know, as I find that the following helps to manage my [period] symptoms…’.”
It’s difficult to do – but you have every right to be honest with your employer about how you’re feeling. No one should have to pretend to be ok when they’re really, really not. This is why Daye launched Period Pain Clinic: designed to help patients understand the root cause of their period pain, and to build personalised pain and symptom management plans. Stay tuned…
And, as always, it’s vital to see a doctor if you have any health concerns at all – period-related or otherwise.