If you’re someone that menstruates, chances are you’ll be all too familiar with some of the dreaded physical side effects that come with periods. Add a full working day to that equation and it’s safe to say, it’s a lot.
Consider this: alongside the bleeding, those who have periods can also experience PMS (which can entail bloating, mood swings and tender boobs), cramping, back pain, nausea, diarrhoea and headaches to deal with. Imagine dealing with some (or even all) of the above during your 9 to 5 and you can understand why an increasing number of women are not only having a negative experience at work, but also missing out on work entirely due to period-related symptoms.
In a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 69% of the women surveyed said that they had experienced negativity in the workplace due to their period symptoms. More than half said that they were unable to work due to their period, while one in five women surveyed said they had to take sick leave to cope with their symptoms – with 49% saying that they didn’t tell their manager that their absence was related to their menstrual cycle for fear that they wouldn’t be taken seriously.
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It’s time for change.
As the survey found, often the support for those who menstruate in the workplace isn’t always there. Just over one in 10 of respondents said that their organisation provided support for menstrual health (from putting policies in place to providing guidance and training for staff), while two-thirds said that their workplace had no support available whatsoever.
In recent years, the conversation around menstrual support within workplaces has evolved. Back in February 2023, the Spanish government approved a law to allow menstrual leave for up to three days each month, guaranteeing those who suffer a respite. Japan, South Korea, Zambia and Indonesia all grant this leave, too.
After all, a UK survey carried out by period charity Bloody Good Period and Fever further highlighted some of the symptoms those who menstruate face that can impact their working day. The top reasons cited for struggling to work included low energy (83%), being in pain (79%), less concentration (61%), feeling anxious about leaking (57%) and having to stop work to take or buy pain medication (50%). It begs the question: If so many are affected by their periods in these ways, why aren’t workplaces better equipped to meet the needs of menstruating employees?
In some areas of Asia, many companies grant employees menstrual leave, which allows those who menstruate to take time off work for especially difficult periods. While Japan and South Korea have had such laws for decades, certain areas and companies in India and China are also beginning to adopt period leave entitlement. In the UK, however, people are expected to use sick leave should they need to.
But the truth is, talking about periods in the workplace is considered taboo, and the stigma around coping with periods is still very much prevalent. Having teamed up with Birbeck University’s Claire Hutcheson, Bloody Good Period has compiled a report looking into periods and menstrual wellbeing in the workplace to launch its Bloody Good Employers initiative, which hopes to drive change for employers, employees and wider society.
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The report quite clearly demonstrates a ‘concentric cycle of silence’ around periods in UK workplaces, showing that 33% feel it is more professional not to mention menstrual health to their employer. One British-Asian, cis female case study, aged 30-39 said: “I find it extremely difficult because I get quite bad PMS with regards to emotion and my male manager thinks it is OK to ridicule me for this whilst also managing to say it is fake. So I would only ever talk about menstruation with my female colleague, never with male leadership.”
Then, we move onto the topic of ignorance. The reluctance of society to talk openly about periods means that there is a significant gap in education and knowledge. As a result, when it comes to periods, many (both males and females included) resort to drawing on lived experience of themselves or others to make judgements.
One Black British cis female case study, aged 21-29 revealed: “Some women think that because they don’t have painful periods that those of us who do are exaggerating. This doesn’t help. I am in agony and actually often pick up colds during my periods which also adds to sick days.”
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But is menstrual leave the answer? Sadly, it’s not quite so simple. While there is no doubt that having menstrual leave available would be a step in the right direction, until there’s less stigma, there’s a chance it won’t make a huge difference. In Japan, uptake is remarkably low. According to CNN Business, a Japanese government survey in 2017 found that only 0.9% of female employees claimed period leave.
Gabby Edlin, CEO and Founder of Bloody Good Period says: “The issue really comes down to the fact our workplaces were never set up for those who menstruate. A question the mainstream media love to ask about menstrual leave is: ‘So are you expecting men to pick up the work?’ But this issue doesn’t start and end with menstrual leave.
“It’s much more about flexible working. The idea is that if you have an employer that grants menstrual leave, they should also be flexible enough to grant leave to other people when they struggle to work.”
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So yes, implementing menstrual leave should surely be on the agenda, but so too should creating work environments that openly discuss the pitfalls of periods. And making period welfare a priority in the workplace can only help the situation.
Providing back supports, period products like period pants and pain relief can not only help those who require it, but also start normalising conversation around periods so that hopefully, one day, those that need it might feel comfortable enough to take menstrual leave if and when it’s offered.
Let’s hope that meaningful menstrual leave and more flexible work opportunities come to the UK soon.
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