"Don't bother asking her... she's on her period" - The importance of a workplace menstrual policy

Roughly 26% of the global population experiences menstruation and yet it remains confined to hushed corners of the office, treated as a taboo. A 2019 survey of 2,000 professionals by Initial Washroom Hygiene found that 32% of men thought that women talking about their periods was unprofessional. Furthermore, employees can find it uncomfortable to discuss menstruation with their line managers.


Consequently, employees often don't feel comfortable sharing the physical and mental pain they might be experiencing or using their sick leave entitlement. This can lead to employees pushing through the pain. At its extreme, period pain has been likened to a heart attack. What is more, the effects of period pain are not limited to the physical, and employees may experience cognitive impairment and mental health issues. This can affect their work performance and lead to costly (but avoidable) consequences for the business.


To avoid these problems, employers should foster a more positive and inclusive approach to menstrual hygiene in the workplace. The implementation of a "Period Policy" is one way you can support the health and wellbeing of your staff. The aim of the policy is to support employees in their ability to adequately self-care during their period, free from feelings of shame. Trusting employees to manage their needs during their period encourages empathy and awareness amongst colleagues. A policy will guide line managers to respond appropriately. By doing this, companies can actively work to remove the stigma and taboo surrounding menstruation at work and beyond. Improving workplace flexibility and ensuring that employees feel comfortable in the workplace is imperative for employee retention and a productive workforce.


One of the longest countrywide examples of a "Period Policy" is in Japan, which introduced one in 1947. Although commendable in its scope, it has not been without critique and resistance. Employees may be reluctant to use such allowances due to the perception that it may reflect poorly on their professional development. Other criticisms include the presumption of unfairness and that such policies act to further stigmatise menstruating employees who may be considered weak for not being able to work whilst menstruating. In Spain, a draft Bill was recently leaked which indicated that Spanish Parliamentarians intended to implement legislation that would grant 3 days of optional medical leave for women suffering severe period pain. This law would be the first of its kind in Europe and would likely signal a countrywide shift in attitudes towards menstruation.


A formalised menstrual policy will help to reduce period related stigma in the workplace. Simply put, employers need to foster an environment where menstruation is not penalised.


An effective period policy could include:


Flexible working arrangements

The COVID-19 pandemic redefined workplace expectations and the possibility of flexible working arrangements. As many of use start to move back into the workplace, continuing to provide the option of work from home when needed will be beneficial to women who may still be able to work on their period, but from the comfort of their own homes.


Paid menstrual leave

Paid menstrual leave is a controversial topic. Many believe that it may encourage employers to look more favourably on employees who do not menstruate, therefore widening gender gaps, and that women may be discriminated against as they will be perceived as sick or less capable. Not everyone who menstruates will need or use paid menstrual leave, however offering paid period leave, that is not taken from annual leave and does not require a medical certificate, shows employees that you take their wellbeing seriously. It also shows that you believe them and their symptoms, and they are trusted to make decisions around their work and health.


It's also important to remember that reproductive and menstrual health conditions, such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, or peri-menopause, can induce severe symptoms such as fatigue, severe pelvic pain and heavy periods. These symptoms are more extreme than an average period and employees that are dealing with these conditions may need more support. Read about how you can support employees with endometriosis at work here.


Access to period products

Providing free tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups, and ensuring that there are sanitary bins in office bathrooms, can make the workplace a more comfortable environment for those who menstruate. Periods may come unexpectedly, or there may be occasions when employees forget to bring products or did not bring enough. Anxiety about your period leaking is not conducive to a productive or comfortable working environment and leaving tampons if for a long period of time is dangerous as it can cause toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal. Providing period products alleviates this anxiety and shows employees that you care about their health and wellbeing. &SISTERS offer a corporate scheme to provide plastic and toxin free period care in office bathrooms. You could also go one step further and provide hot water bottles at the office for employees to manage cramps and uncomfortable period symptoms.


Communication plan

Establishing a communication plan can be effective for employees who may find it difficult to approach conversations around time off for their health and wellbeing.


Training for team leaders and managers

Ensure that managers and team leaders have access to high quality information about menstrual health and have access to clear guidance on dealing with any related issues.


Creating an open and understanding workplace

Implementing these measures helps to break down the stigma and taboos about periods, particularly around the appropriateness of these conversations in the workplace. Make sure that employees are aware of the measures in place to benefit them. By doing so you are initiating open discussions around employee health and wellbeing that, in turn, contribute to employee satisfaction and retention.


Conclusion

In sum, communication, flexibility and inclusivity are all key components for an effective period policy. Consultation and buy in from key stakeholders is also very important and sends a clear signal to employees that they are being heard. This is where the consultative services of Thrive can come in. Thrive specialises in offering training to organisations that want to tackle culturally sensitive topics such as menstruation in the workplace. To find out more about Thrive's services, email hello@thrivefuture.org


By Fiona Ovberedjo | Thrive Research Hub Member