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February 24, 2023
Min read

“My period wrecked my mental health every month. So I started talking about it at work.”

Written By
Nausheen Eusuf
Marie Krebs | People Partner at Learnerbly

Marie loved her life. But for a few days each month, she just couldn’t get out of bed.

“I was completely dysfunctional. I’d wake up and start crying. My first thought was: why the hell am I crying? Today was supposed to be a good day. My family, relationships, work—everything was perfect. And yet I felt like shit.”

If it wasn’t tears, it was all-encompassing anxiety that would project itself onto every aspect of her life—her work, her love life, her diet, her friends. Marie’s brain would go into overdrive, leaving her feeling exhausted and worn out. It was hard to think or focus or be present.

“It’s like you’re running and you can’t stop, but you’re out of breath, and it’s all happening inside your head. You’re at your desk but you can’t look at data, you can’t read an email, because in your head you’re still running in circles. You want to stop but it won’t let you.”

At the time, Marie didn’t realise something was wrong. After all, it would go away after a few days. She pushed herself harder and threw herself into her work because it allowed her to focus on something she felt she had more control over. She’d work through lunch and stay late until someone would say, “Marie, go home. It’s 7pm.”

Eventually, she went to therapy for an unrelated issue. This helped a lot—but there were still some days of the month when nothing helped. Then one day, while talking to her therapist, Marie realised that she was looking for answers in the wrong place.

“I was trying hard to find the reasons in my soul—when in fact they exist in my bones and they’re transpiring into my whole being, because those things are not separate.”

Finding correlation

Marie started to wonder whether her problem might be hormonal, or perhaps the way her brain is wired. She started reading and researching. She also started tracking her mood and her menstrual cycle, suspecting there might be a connection.

“It took me the longest time to figure out. Because even when you find a correlation, it’s still not easy to put it all together. I kept thinking maybe it's my relationship to dating, or my parents.”

<quote-author>Marie Krebs<quote-author><quote-company>People Partner at Learnerbly<quote-company>

Eventually, Marie was able to connect the dots and arrive at an explanation: premenstrual dysphoria. It’s a health condition that can cause severe depression, anxiety, or irritability the week before menstruation.

Knowing that finally allowed her to stop judging herself, set healthy boundaries at work, and prioritise her wellbeing. Taking the day off, for example, or maybe even just a few hours when needed.

Another thing that helped was talking about it. That’s how a friend who has polycystic ovary syndrome ended up recommending a herbal supplement that works as a natural hormonal regulator. Marie was doubtful at first. The pill, which also regulates hormones, hadn’t made a difference. But she tried the herbal supplement—and it worked well.

Which is not to say that the issue has gone away completely, but that it’s manageable.

Over time, Marie has developed strategies to manage the symptoms when they arise. Now when the dysphoria hits, she’s able to recognise it, remind herself that it’ll pass, and take care of herself in the meantime.

“I’m able to detach myself from it—accept that it’s legitimate, but not take it for what I want my truth to be. You have to let it go through you without breaking you.”

There was just one thing left to do: tell work about it.

Periods in the workplace

As a People Partner at Learnerbly, Marie spends a lot of time thinking about how to make the workplace safe and inclusive for everyone. And yet, she didn’t talk about periods at work because of the shame and stigma attached to it.

That stigma, of course, begins much earlier—long before people enter the workforce. Marie recalls the negative cultural messages she received as a teenager.

“I remember people saying you’re gross or disgusting when you're on your period. Or being dismissive about the mental health aspect, saying ‘just get over it.’ At scale, these messages become cultural and oppressive .”

<quote-author>Marie Krebs<quote-author><quote-company>People Partner at Learnerbly<quote-company>

No wonder people don’t talk about periods at work. Or they feel embarrassed going to the bathroom with a tampon in hand. Or that companies provide free mochaccinos, but there’s pushback about free tampons. Or that in her native France, tampons are taxed as a nonessential product.

These things simply didn’t sit right with Marie. So she decided to open up the conversation.

Ending menstrual stigma at work. Period.

One day, Marie was talking to a consultant who was reviewing their policies around mental health and wellbeing. She asked whether Learnerbly should have a formal policy regarding periods, just like they have a sick leave policy and a work-from-home policy.

After all, she was having painful menstrual cramps that day, yet she was neither working from home nor on sick leave. The consultant replied, “Yes, absolutely. What I’m hearing is that it would be helpful to you right now.”

That was a revelatory moment for Marie. It made her wonder why she was at work that day.

“I identify as a feminist. I read books about the uterus. I talk about periods at parties. My gyno even asked me if I was a medical student. So why the hell was I in the office working with cramps?”

Marie's page for Learnerbly's company wiki.

Soon, she’d co-created a page about periods at work for the Learnerbly Employee Guide. Everyone in the company who has (or has had) periods contributed. Marie’s colleagues say it has really helped them break the stigma, feel more comfortable, and talk about it openly at work.

TL;DR: it’s okay to talk about periods at work. Because no one should have to work if they’re in pain—physical or mental.

Want to destigmatise periods in your workplace? Check out Marie's wiki page about periods at work.

Oliva therapist photograph

3 tips on handling premenstrual dysphoria

by Oliva therapist

Dr. Sarah Bateup

Eat & sleep well

Simple lifestyle changes like ensuring you get enough sleep can help you build resilience to your monthly symptoms. Some studies show that women need more sleep than men—so make sure you have a healthy bedtime routine. Food cravings are also often part of the picture with premenstrual dysphoria. But a healthy diet including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown to help.

Keep a diary

It can be helpful to keep a daily record of your symptoms and your menstrual cycle. At the end of each day, write down how you felt and keep a note of the day your period started and when it ended. Keep the diary for at least three months—you may begin to see a relationship between how you feel and your menstrual cycle. If you think you see a pattern, you can show the diary to your doctor.

Get specialist help

Premenstrual dysphoria effects how you think and feel. It can also have an impact on your behaviour. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on developing strategies and skills to manage these symptoms—so give it a try. There are also various medications that might help. Some people find that antidepressants can help with anxiety, depression, and even some of the biological symptoms. Others find hormonal regulators like the pill can help. Of course, make sure to consult your doctor before taking anything.