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@Work Advice tackles the delicate topic of PMS


Reader: I work in a team of women in their late 20s (I’m a girl, as well). One of my colleagues, “Mary,” suffers from severe PMS. It’s not something that she admitted, but she gets a leave of absence for a couple of days every month because she is not feeling well when she has her period. She’s not the easiest person to begin with, but the week before her period she becomes intolerable (irritable, snapping at everyone, slow at work). And I’m fed up with covering her workload when she is on leave.

I suggested gently a few times that she consult a doctor, since these symptoms disrupt her everyday life. Her answers boil down to: “No use to see a doctor; that’s the way I was born.” Other girls of the team had the same talk with her with the same results. I brought this up to our boss, who is aware of Mary’s behavior. He is reluctant to fire her, because he considers Mary hard to replace. And he is reluctant to deal with the subject. It would be weird for your 40-year-old boss to tell you, “Hey, I noticed you may have PMS. Deal with it or lose your job.”

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at View Archive

Karla: In Mary’s defense, nothing makes most people crabbier than receiving unsolicited armchair diagnoses. Maybe Mary has extreme PMS — or an unrelated chronic condition exacerbated by PMS.
You. Don’t. Know. More to the point: It. Doesn’t. Matter.

Certain aspects of Mary’s Problematic Mood Switches are none of your business, such as her health and how she spends her personal leave. This is true whether she’s dealing with cancer, bipolar disorder or a monthly bingo addiction.

Karla Miller (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The good (?) news: When her behavior and absences consistently affect your ability to do your job, it becomes your business.

This is one of those rare times when I recommend focusing on the results of bad behavior — not their cause. Document how Mary’s actions specifically harm your performance. Then your boss can tell her, for example: “Mary, you yelled at Jane in front of a client. We’ve missed important deadlines because your part wasn’t ready. You’re entitled to use leave, but you consistently leave piles of work behind for others to cover. These actions are unacceptable. Things can’t go on like this if you want to continue on this team and have opportunities to advance.”

In short, instead of pushing yet another armchair diagnosis on her, he should tell her how her actions are harming her and the team, and ask what would help her turn things around. That gives her an opening to bring up her Possible Medical Situation and to follow through with her doctor, or to take other concrete steps to save her job. Either way, the next step is up to her.

Karla Miller lives with her family in South Riding, Va. For 16 years, she has written for and edited tax publications. Send your questions to

When a co-worker’s mood swings upset the team

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