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Period Power: Periods in the Workplace
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Period Power: Periods in the Workplace

Recently we’ve been shedding some light on why periods are powerful in society, not just in developing countries but right on our front door step too.

From #PeriodPoverty, to girls missing out on school and even period shaming through the media (ugh, not cool!) we’ve still got a long way to go for menstruation equality! That’s why we’re all about the #PeriodPower this year.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be diving into how people are affected by attitudes towards periods in different walks of life including in schools, prisons, homelessness and beyond. 

Why are we talking about periods in the workplace?

...because that’s where many of us spend most of our time! Unfortunately your menstrual cycle doesn’t work around your busy work-life schedule and, depending on your symptoms and job role, this can present obstacles for many of us. Obstacles we need to be talking about.

Menstruation affects everyone differently (no two periods or people are the same) but the crux of the matter is that it exists for most of us and can affect us physically and mentally at times and enough to affect our work. Does this mean that women and menstruators are inherently at a disadvantage in the workplace? Hells no!

What it does mean is that we have to acknowledge differences between those who have periods and those who don’t and how we can best serve both in happy, safe, equality-driven workspaces.

For example, more than half of us experience pain for one to two days each month with 20% reporting it being severe enough to interfere with daily activities. Those suffering from conditions such as anemia, dysmenorrhea, or endometriosis (affecting roughly 10% of the population) are likely to be affected even more.

In a 2011 study conducted across 10 countries found people with endometriosis experienced reduced work performance, losing on average of almost 11 hours of work each week.

Period poverty (and being unable to access the products you need) and reluctance to report symptoms due to shame also affects work performance and many people already take paid and unpaid sick leave as a result.

Sharra Vostral, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology lays it out as follows:
“If men are held up as the norm, then the assumption is you should be able to work all the time. And so there’s a lot of pressure, either to have women cover and hide their periods and just keep moving or to say, ‘No, women are special and they need rest and protection so that they can take care of their bodies and their periods.”

What’s it like being on your period at work?

Recently we asked a group of people who menstruate to share their personal experiences of menstruating whilst “on the job” in the UK and here’s what they shared:

Periods as a police officer

"I would only have even that paltry level of open communication about periods with people who were the same rank as I am - it wouldn't be considered an appropriate conversation with more junior officers, who would be horrified at this "overshare" from their boss, and I would only tell a senior officer if I was basically dying in front of them and they needed to know!

It is less of an issue now as promotions have meant that I'm not walking miles, running, fighting etc as much as I used to, but if I'm taking a painkiller at work whilst on my period and someone asks if I'm okay, if it was only women in the room I might say the reason, but if it was mixed or male only company I might say nothing much or at most mutter "lady issues" or "women's things"!(Even that is usually met with horror and a swift change of subject!)

Oh yeah, one other thing... I'm in a plain-clothes role now but when I was in uniform and wearing body armour, when my period was due my boobs would get really sensitive and wearing the bullet/stab-proof vest was torture."

Office inequality

"My friend used to get awful, awful pains (sometimes even ended up in hospital) and was simply laughed at by the senior men and not allowed to take the time off... but man flu.... that's a serious issue."

The good and bad in government offices

"I’ve seen men walk away from our bank of desks & go to the kitchen because they are physically uncomfortable by the conversation 🙄 I use a menstrual cup & find that using the disabled loo is easier because they have a sink in them but I get lots of tuts & looks when people see me coming out of the loo - there’s even been signs put up to say ‘these facilities are reserved for people with disabilities only’. But to counter these negative experiences there is one floor where the have started a voluntary donation station for tampons & sanitary items in case you’re ever caught short at work 😊"

Male vs. Female colleagues

"We have free tampons and sanitary towels at work...we’re so fortunate. Even in the unisex loos. We’re even trialling organic/non-toxic versions.

My team is fortunately mostly women so we talk freely amongst our group. The guys just stay silent given they’re outnumbered (bless ‘em).

I have extremely heavy/painful periods and tend to work from home at least one day a month....but couldn’t bare to tell my (male) boss the real reason for being at home."

It’s not just physical symptoms

"I get awful emotional PMS rather than physical symptoms.

What I'd really be up for is having the option to take one unplanned WFH (working from home day) a month on top of other flexible working. I work part time in a fixed-flexible set up which is generally good but that I feel would make a difference for a lot of women."

PMS_workplace

Bloody good conversations in health professions

"In my workplace we love talking about blood - but only when it comes from areas which are usually not bleeding 😉 The men don’t have any problem with it, some actually ask questions about it. But that‘s because of the field of work we‘re all in."

What does the future of periods in the workplace look like?

Historically, periods were a reason to keep those who menstruate out of the workplace all together and, arguably better now, we’re still seeing some weird responses for addressing this issue. In Norway, one company tried to have people wear red bracelets to show they were on their period in an effort to monitor the amount of bathroom breaks (say what now?!). In Germany, the supermarket chain Lidl was found to be secretly monitoring their staff’s menstrual cycles in an attempt to crack down on...shoplifting?

I can’t even.

A not-so-crazy idea that’s making headlines recently is the idea of paid sick leave for those who need it when on their period. It’s been around in Japan since the 1940’s and in Zambia but it still up for debate in most other countries.

While most agree that someone suffering from any physical ailment (including menstruation) should be allowed to take the time needed to look after themselves, some are concerned that “paid period leave” could increase the gender pay gap further. Forbes, finance writer Tim Worstall argues that employers will view those who menstruate as even more expensive to hire and that this will negatively affect their pay or chance of hire in to a job.

Also, with menstrual-taboo still such a big issue all over the world it’s unlikely people will feel comfortable asking for paid leave because of their periods anyway. In Japan we still see that workers would rather just take regular sick leave than declare it as the period paid leave, even though it’s offered to them there.

So, what’s the answer?

First, we need to break down these taboos and get people talking about this normal part of life that affects so many people.

Second, it’s paramount that people have access to the products and facilities they need in order to carry out their daily activities. This means making sure you have appropriate period-friendly bathroom policies! Lastly, if you need time off from work or to work flexibly around your physical symptoms then of course you should have that.
Maybe instead of paid “period leave” we should push for more adequate sick leave in general that can cover us, then it’s up to you what you disclose to your employer or not.

Whatever your situation, your health and wellbeing come first no matter what!

What do you think?

What’s been your experience of menstruation in the work place? What do you think employers can do to make things better?

Do you think paid period leave is a good idea?

35 comments on Period Power: Periods in the Workplace

  • I got mansplanned about my cycle
    I got mansplanned about my cycleDecember 11, 2020

    I was recently on a job trial, when I had a cramp, my period finished the day before, so I was confused as to why I was cramping (turns out it was dehydration and constipation, YAY!).

    The person (male) I was shadowing and whom would be giving a recommendation if I was up to the task, asked if I was having “lady problems”, I beleive if you’re an adult you say things as what they are. So as I was telling him its called menstruation, he then said I would never be able to the job because I have lady problems. I had worked the entier week with no problem while mensturating, but because I was actually sick it got put by a male that I couldn’t do the job because I menstruate therefore had no energy. I’ve done far more physically demanding jobs than this one. And I wasn’t even on my bloody period I was actually sick! And I want to see an apology, no one gets to tell me what im capable of while I menstruate, only my body is aloud to tell me!

  • Minu
    MinuMay 22, 2020

    Since starting part time work at a supermarket, I have started dreading the days I get my periods. My flow doesn’t start until 3rd or 4th day, but 1st and 2nd days are so uncomfortable with uneasiness and pain. When it starts, it is heavy and makes fast paced walk very difficult. This month was particularly hard because I got a sudden rush to pee and I needed only 10 mins for break time to start and unable to control myself, I ran to the washroom with no explanation and they were young boys and men. I felt so embarrassed. Then I look at other girls who work daily at these places with such ease and it further depresses me and makes me wonder why I am unable to control my pain, my periods and my emotions during this time. The day it starts to go is the best feeling ever. I am full of energy. When it starts to come, I am miserable. It really disturbs my plans, my energy, my focus and my ability to compete at workplace. I feel defeated not by the world, but by periods as I end up slowing down, performing average and taking leaves just because I feel sleepy, tired and need rest. Even more sad is the inability to freely express the condition, the topic spoils the atmosphere. Even women don’t like to talk about it. Makes you wonder if you are an odd one.

  • Lunette Menstrual Cup
    Lunette Menstrual CupApril 01, 2020

    Hi Lilian, Thank you for sharing your story! We are so saddened to hear about the pain you have to go through each month. That alone is frustrating enough and you certainly should not have to feel bad about it! We hope there will be relief for your periods pains in the future. <3
    -Team Lunette

  • Michelle
    MichelleJanuary 31, 2020

    Chasia-

    That is so unfair to give you a guilt trip for taking care of yourself. I’m glad you stayed home. Your quality of life should come before a job, always.

    ————————

    My period causes intense pain and mood swings. I’m on the highest dose of a mood stabler for bipolar disorder that my doctor thought would take away the emotional distress from PMS and PMDD as well. Granted, it did take the edge off, but I still have intense mood swings. I get anxiety that develops into paranoia and agoraphobia (another diagnosis, yay!) and I start self-loathing—something I never do outside of my favorite week of the month. I have a cyst on one of my ovaries that swells and puts pressure on my sciatic nerve to the point that it’s uncomfortable to sit down. The worst case I had happened during a 2-day training event and I had to sit up front so I couldn’t even stand to relieve pressure. I had to shift uncomfortably the entire time which I feel like that couldn’t have been any better than just standing up! Lol.

    Now, I’m way more open about my period at work. Women shouldn’t be ashamed of something unfortunately natural like a period and if I’m more open maybe I can help other women at my work kick the period shame. We complain about having headaches at work and leaving work when we have migraines—why should pain from period cramps be any different?

    Thanks for reading! <3

  • Lilian
    LilianApril 01, 2020

    I’m really glad to have found this article today. I really struggle with heavy and very painful periods. My periods have become increasingly difficult every year since I turned 21,
    5 years ago. Working pt/ freelance meant that I could juggle work with the time I needed off but for the past year I’ve been in a role that is ft, salaried and with no flexitime available. It’s extremely difficult. Every month I need 2, sometimes 3 rest days and when that falls in a week day it is very difficult to know what to do.
    Sometimes I cannot stand or walk for the cramps and know there is no way I could concentrate all day on my work, even medicated. Magnesium has helped a lot with pm bloating that was previously so bad that I couldn’t fit into my clothes. Excruciating pain that leaves me howling and curled up is often how my period is for the first two days. Exhausted from the loss of blood and from the pain. I have seen my gp recently as normal pain medication wasn’t doing anything and have a prescription painkiller and also a blood medication. My colleagues certainly don’t understand and my employers make me feel guilty and anxious about not being able to work.
    When on, I get ibs symptoms too and need lots of toilet breaks. It’s very stressful and I long for more understanding in the workplace. What I find really depressing is that unless I am my own boss, I struggle to see how I will have enough freedom to deal with my periods and not miss work in the future.

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