How to Handle PMS in the Workplace


A few years ago a co-worker of mine was pregnant. During her first trimester with raging hormones this funny, cheerful and usually even-tempered woman suddenly became highly sensitive, irritable and at times ridiculously irrational.

One day during one of her outbursts, she stormed off and in an ‘ah-ha’ moment, I looked at my two other co-workers with big eyes and said, “Wow. I’ve just realised that is how I am every month!” Both their heads shot up and they nodded in unison and said, “Uh-huh, now you know what we go through with you!” I hung my head in mock shame and sank down into my chair, and they both burst out laughing.

PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is no laughing matter though, and no fun for the sufferer. Apart from the physical and emotional misery it inflicts, it can impact badly on interpersonal relationships, productivity and absenteeism in the workplace.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, or whether our male co-workers want to accept it as real or not, the fact of the matter is PMS exists. It’s not just an excuse for women to become bitchy. It’s an actual medically documented condition. A mind-boggling 150 symptoms can be attributed to PMS! Irritability, mood swings, backache, headaches, breast tenderness, bloating, fatigue and even depression are some of the symptoms of PMS. PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) is a more extreme form and in some cases so severe that it incapacitates the sufferer. PMDD affects up to 10 percent of the female population.

Tolerance levels, the ability to cope with stress and energy levels all take a nosedive. It is at this time that you visualise taking the letter opener and plunging it into your boss’s forehead, you’re snapping like a Chihuahua at your co-workers and all you want to do is put your head on your desk and take a nap.

So, how do you calm the choppy PMS waters and make the sail more smoother?

1. Get to know your cycle

The first step is to get to know the ups and downs of your cycle. Ovulation starts around day 14. This is followed by a drop in estrogen and a rise in progesterone. From that moment on the female body is riding the hormone rollercoaster.  Irritability and moodiness is one part; another is the drastic drop in energy. This leads to lethargy and sleepiness and can result in a drop in productivity.

A few months ago I downloaded the app Hormone Horoscope available on Google Play and App Store. I was interested in getting to know exactly what is happening in my body at different times of the month.  The app gives you a daily guide (‘horoscope’) as to how you can expect to feel on each day of your cycle.

It has been enlightening as there were certain things I did not know. For instance, I’d heard of ‘pregnancy brain’ but had no idea there was ‘PMS brain’. At a certain time in your cycle there are a few days when concentration is difficult, you are forgetful, scatterbrained and feel like you have brain fog. I’ve even noticed that during that time my fingers do not cooperate that well on the keyboard and I make a lot of typing errors. Not once had I ever connected my brain fog with PMS! With this app, you can also add notes on how you are feeling on different days. This too was interesting as I noticed a definite trend in symptoms on specific days of my cycle.

Once you become acutely aware of the phases of your monthly cycle, you can adjust and adapt your behaviour accordingly. If you suddenly find that your co-worker’s incessant chatter has you itching to grab the stapler so that you can staple her mouth shut, you know why and can reign in the PMS monster by taking a deep breath and counting to ten. That will prevent you from inflicting grievous bodily harm or going around biting everyone’s head off and alienating half the office. If you feel comfortable enough, you could even give your closest female co-workers (your male co-workers may not appreciate hearing about your ‘womanly’ problems) the heads up that it’s ‘that time of the month’ so that they understand why you are just a teeny bit crazy.

2. Follow your natural rhythm

Once you get to know the hormonal ebb and flow, instead of fighting it and creating even more disharmony within your body, rather go with the flow.

Follow your body’s natural rhythm and energy flow and work with it, not against it.

  • At certain times in the reproductive cycle when progesterone (a sedating hormone which brings about feelings of calmness and lethargy) is increasing, we start feeling the need for some solitude and would rather be at home in PJs or sweatpants than be out on the town in sequins and glitter. So use the time to nurture and pamper yourself. Make it something you look forward to - skip the social gatherings and pull up the drawbridge, curl up and watch a movie, soak in a long hot bath and just enjoy some quiet time. Your body tells you what it needs and when it needs it – tune in and take the cue. Listening to your body and taking some time to rest will help manage fatigue.
  • Make the most of your high-energy periods. During the two weeks I am PMS-free is the best time for me to get as much done as possible because it’s when I have the most energy.
  • On the flip side, when my energy is low I go with the flow. I either do less work or take a break if I have nothing urgent (as I work for myself, luckily I am able to do that). If you work 9-5, just accept that on those days you are likely to be less productive. Don’t force it as you will just be working against yourself. Tiredness coupled with brain fog will mean you may end up making more mistakes and having to redo work. Just do the best you can on those days and get through the most urgent work.

3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

PMS does not exist in a vacuum for only 12-14 days in a month. Everything you do throughout the month plays a role. A bad diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and excessive alcohol exacerbate symptoms. Making a few changes in your lifestyle will help alleviate symptoms.

  • Reduce sugar, alcohol, fatty foods, salt and caffeine intake as all of these can increase the severity of symptoms.
  • Include vitamin and mineral supplements such as vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, Evening Primrose Oil, Flax Seed Oil and Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Herbal and natural supplements such as chaste berry, black cohosh, dandelion root or Xiao Yao San (rambling powder) may help reduce symptoms. However, check with a doctor, naturopath or homeopath before taking herbal supplements, especially if you are taking other medications as they could have a negative interaction and be harmful.
  • Add some exercise to your day. Even light exercise such as a 30-minute walk helps.
  • Get enough rest and sleep. Nothing will aggravate PMS crankiness more than sleep deprivation and fatigue.
  • Reduce stress. With most women juggling very busy lives, this may be easier said than done, but stress is a big contributor to a bad bout of PMS. I have noticed that if the previous month was a very stressful one, my PMS symptoms the next month are ten times worse. Take up yoga, do a 10-minute meditation every morning, dance around the room with the music on full blast, go for a daily run or read a good book – whatever it is that immediately drops the needle on the stress-o-meter. Combating the effects of stress not only helps for PMS but for overall health.
  • Talk to your doctor about possibly using a progesterone cream or pill which has been shown to improve the symptoms of PMS.
  • On the bright side, PMS provides a good excuse to eat chocolate! Chocolate is a great mood booster but make sure it’s dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) which is even better at upping serotonin (those ’feel good’ hormones that lifts our mood).

From puberty to the menopause, womanhood and hormones go hand in hand. Becoming aware of the cycle our bodies go through every month, maintaining a good lifestyle and keeping stress levels in check will help make it a lot less of a tumultuous time.