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Period Rights at Work

It is well known that for many menstruators, the menstruation phase can be more than just painful.

It can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. It can cause sleep deprivation and knock many regular habits for six.

It isn’t much of a leap then, to assume that people who menstruate might have a harder time at work for the duration of their cycle. However, to normalise period rights in the workplace, employees and employers alike have to grapple with the still present gender inequalities that exist in this setting.

In the following article, we hope to provide some clarity surrounding period rights in the workplace, existing inequalities, and how to recognise and take action against a potentially discriminatory workplace.

What we’ll be looking into:

  • Being a person who menstruates in the workplace.
  • How common is menstrual leave?
  • What is ‘menstrual concealment’ and period stigma?
  • Should we have menstrual leave?
  • What does a period-inclusive workplace look like?

Menstruation and the workplace

According to the World Bank, on any given day, over 300 million women are menstruating. Therefore, it is likely that on any given day in your place of work, somebody will be menstruating.

For many, this is not groundbreaking news. However, its implications may be worth taking the time to consider, especially if you are an employer.

Research shows that during menstruation, productivity can sharply decrease due to period-associated discomfort. This research also shows that there is a much higher level of self-reported absenteeism (taking long periods of time off work that extend beyond regular breaks) during their period.

Furthermore, it is also quite common for employees who menstruate to take time off due to discomfort associated with their period symptoms. In fact, according to a recent survey, over half (55%) of those polled say that they do this. However, only 27% disclose the true reason to their employers for doing so.

These problems can be made worse for those suffering from conditions such as endometriosis or adenomyosis, which cause significant period pain.

It is now such a problem that The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is calling for businesses in the UK to make sure they have a workplace standard in place to support employees who menstruate.

Whilst this is not a menstrual leave policy, it is a good first step towards destigmatising periods at work.

How common are menstrual leave policies?

Since on any given day a significant amount of the workforce could call in sick due to anxieties whilst on their period, surely there must be something written in employment policies across the economy, right?

Well, it’s not so straightforward. The first menstrual leave policy for a UK organisation came into practice only in 2019.

Since then, Spain has signed menstrual leave into national law. But whether or not the UK will follow is unknown.

UK-based charity, Bloody Good Period, noted the disadvantages faced by those who menstruate. Their research concluded that employers are not acknowledging the challenges so many of their workforce are facing. They showed that 27% of affected employees reported never feeling supported by their employer.

This should not be the case, especially as the effect of menstruation on work ability has been noted for centuries.

Did you know?

It was written into medicine that girls and women should break from school and work during their period to rest in 1873. The medical report noted that the man’s duty to maintain a “sustained effort” was no more noble than a woman’s choice to rest.

Menstrual concealment and period stigma in the workplace

So why has something that was recognised in 1873 taken 150 years to write into practice?

Unless those affected by these symptoms don’t stand up and shout about them, employers would not feel inclined to write menstrual policies into reality due to their novelty in the workforce.

Bloody Good Period notes a phenomenon they call ‘menstrual concealment’. This basically means that those suffering from their period choose not to confide in their management for fear that it may seem unprofessional.

This cycle of silence is what keeps periods stigmatised.

These problems come into contact with other problems surrounding gender inequality in the workplace. According to Bupa, employees would be 67% more likely to confide if they had a female boss.

Without women in management positions, progress towards shifting workplace culture to one more informal and inclusive may be stunted.

Did you know?

On average, women make up 30% of leadership positions in the UK, according to LinkedIn data.

Would a ‘menstrual leave’ policy work anyway?

There are many critics of these policies, and most of them from those who menstruate.

The reasons for this are numerous. There are worries that menstrual leave policies might work against those who they are trying to help; for example, if an employer feels less inclined to hire someone based on whether or not they menstruate.

It could also lead to greater period shame in the workplace, for example if those who menstruate are seen as weaker or less reliable employees.

If people who menstruate are then seen as inherently more expensive employees, sex-based discrimination may increase.

However, this does not mean that there is nothing that employers could do to make sure their employees feel safe, heard and comfortable.

What should an inclusive employer look like?

If your workplace does not have a menstrual leave policy even though you feel like you would benefit from one, there are some important indicators of inclusivity that you can look or advocate for in general.

  1. Making sure there are sufficient sanitary stations in all bathrooms at work – as some people who menstruate may not identify as female.
  2. Employers can also make sure that they supply free period products in their bathrooms.
  3. Employers might be willing and open to providing flexible working during your period. This may help relieve anxiety both in terms of suffering period discomfort, but also by having access to a familiar bathroom and reducing the fear of leaking through clothing in public.
  4. Provision of extra rest breaks, especially if the nature of the work is physical.
  5. Most importantly, inclusive employers will provide a safe space to make you feel like you can have an open and honest conversation about factors affecting your work, including menstruation.

You have a right to feel comfortable and safe when you are at work. For some guidance on how to best approach your employers about these conversations you can see this helpful guide here.

Normalising periods by creating an honest and open workplace would be the most effective solution. Without this, period pain might be trivialised.

Derogatory language should also be shown the door. It’s time to quit the “on the rag” or “her time of the month” comments.

Furthermore, periods are not ‘gross’ or ‘disgusting’, but something that over half of the global population has to deal with monthly over the course of their life. Recognising the normality of periods for what they are would help all those affected to have a healthier and happier experience at work.

We get that it can be uncomfortable to talk about, especially if you work in a male-dominated workplace or industry. But the advantages of having an honest conversation with management might well pay off if you are struggling.

Remember that here at Kari Health, we are here to support you and help break that period stigma, one conversation at a time.

This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

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