Women having periods in the workplace is an overlooked issue; one that is rarely considered when workplace policies for sick leave and employee wellbeing are put in place. I can recall so many times when I have gotten my period unexpectedly and have had to ask my female colleagues for a sanitary pad in a silent whisper. Women that have periods struggle with many different symptoms including nausea, headaches, bloating and menstrual cramps, all of which significantly impacts wellbeing and work productivity.
In 2019, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development surveyed 2,000 menstruators enquiring about their experiences with having periods in the workplace. The survey revealed that half of the participants reported facing a stigma surrounding periods. A third of the respondents said that their pain was not treated seriously by their colleagues. The stigma and disregard for women that have periods stems from a lack of conversation about menstruation at work. Employees can feel uncomfortable discussing menstrual concerns and this is usually more common in male-dominated spaces. It is, however, important that workplaces actively work towards de-stigmatising periods at work.
The period stigma
Periods have long been stigmatised both in and out of the workplace. Despite contemporary feminists’ attempts to normalise periods and conversations concerning periods, there still remains a sense of awkwardness. Instagram still regularly removes pictures of period blood because of “guidelines…” which is confusing at best.
Periods have different health impacts ranging from cramps and migraines to endometriosis. Women that have periods suffer from different conditions and can feel forced to lie to their employers and colleagues about the reason for sick leave. The wellbeing impact is often dismissed; the symptoms are often seen as something we simply have to deal with or as an “excuse” to avoid work.
There’s also the idea that periods are somehow unsanitary, hence the need to hide period products. This is made worse by the lack of basic facilities in some workplaces, where employees do not have access to sanitary items or sanitary bins or constant access to the bathroom.
Dismantling the workplace stigma
The stigma around periods can have a significant impact on the workforce but there are necessary measures that workplaces can take to overcome it. At a minimum, workplaces can ensure they are equipped with items such as sanitary products and, for example, hot water bottles to relieve cramps. The provision of this type of open support and these basic facilities can foster a welcoming environment; instead of forcing a conversation, employees can be made to feel comfortable more indirectly.
Many workplaces have adopted different methods to introduce conversations about menstruation and remove the stigma around it. This includes the management and/or leadership of the company initiating dialogue about periods and creating a safe space. In addition, workplaces can offer training to managers and employees on how to deal with different situations. For instance, if an employee needs to cut their day short due to menstrual cramps, it should be dealt with care and sympathy instead of a dismissive attitude. Training is crucial as it will create an approachable environment and change employees’ attitudes about menstruation.
There has been a lot of discourse around period leave with some supporting it whilst others view it as counterproductive. Indian food delivery company Zomato offers sick leave for menstruation symptoms of up to ten days a year; the founder of Zomato stressed the need to understand and ensure each employee’s wellbeing in the workplace.
Some people have argued that sick leave for periods risks abuse of use, as employees may just be “lazy.” Some employees can actually avoid taking sick leave for fear of judgement anyway. However, overall, offering specific sick leave is a healthy way of initiating a conversation about periods at work.
Different companies have different policies and culture, which means not everyone can introduce stringent policies regarding sick leave specifically for period symptoms. Instead, they can introduce more flexible policies for all workers with regards to sick days. This can avoid backlash against a certain group and a perpetuation of gender stereotypes. It is important for employees to know that everyone is supported in the same manner.
The stigma around menstruation continues to impact the careers of women that have periods at work and may often hold them back in succeeding in the workplace. It is imperative to let employees know that they are supported. Workplaces can do so by initiating conversations or offering practical support and flexibility to employees. This will not only help break down the stigma, but it will also make employees feel more comfortable with periods and having a conversation about it at work.
Ayesha Mirza is a journalism intern at Yellow Eve. She is passionate about dismantling patriarchal structures and uplifting the voices of marginalised groups.