asking to telework when you have your period

A reader writes:

I suffer from extremely painful menstrual cramps. It is worst on the first day of my cycle: abdominal pain, cold sweats, vomiting, leg pain, “the shivers,” etc. I’ve asked my OB/GYN about this, and he cannot seem to find any illness (endometriosis, fibroids, etc.) that could be causing the pain. I have tried a variety of methods: natural remedies, taking medication days before, modifying my diet, birth control, and even prescribed meds to treat the pain, but cannot get any long-term relief.

This is my first full-time job out of graduate school and while in school, I was always able to manage with shifting my schedule when my cycle started. Since I’ve started working, its a little difficult to do so. Last month, I tried to go in and work through the pain, but once my supervisor saw me, she suggested I go home. The pain is unbearable and I normally stay in bed and/or sleep until the late evening to get some relief.

I don’t want to have to continue to take sick days if my cycle begins on a workday. We are allowed to telecommute when needed and I am more than happy to do so when I get sick like this. But I don’t want to seem as if I’m “abusing the system.” I feel it makes me look as if I’m just trying to get out of work and not serious. I really like my position and my supervisor and want to share with her what is going on, but don’t know if that would seem unprofessional and TMI. She is very understanding, but I am not sure how to proceed here. Any advice?

Personally, I’d have a discreet conversation with your manager and say something like, “I want to ask you about something that I feel a little awkward bringing up. I generally have unusually painful cramps on the first day of my menstrual cycle — to the point that my doctor has run numerous tests to see if something is causing the pain. We’re still trying to get it under control, but I wanted to ask you about our telecommuting policy. I’d love to be able to work at home on this day each month so that I can continue to get work done instead of using a sick day, but I don’t want to misuse the policy. Is that something I could reasonably do, or would that be discouraged?”

In other words, just ask.

But I want to acknowledge that this is a much easier conversation because your manager is a woman. And I feel weird about that, because in general your manager’s gender should play no role in how you operate. But the reality is that this is a topic that women generally feel more comfortable bringing up with women than with men, and so because of that, I think this is an easier conversation in your case.

If your manager were a man, I’d still recommend the same conversation — but with whatever wording you’d be more likely to feel comfortable using. And yes, I know that theoretically you should be able to use the exact same wording with a male manager … but there are plenty of women who wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. In light of that, for a male manager, I might just use a shorter version — “I get horrific cramps one day a month and would like to telecommute that day.” And if you’re wondering why I don’t recommend something just as brief for a woman, it’s because you risk her thinking you’re overreacting to something she knows from personal experience isn’t generally that bad, and thus the additional “it’s genuinely bad” context is potentially useful to provide. And to be clear, I’m not saying any of this is ideal, but I do think it reflects reality for most people, both on your side of this conversation and your manager’s.

What do others think?

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