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? No way!

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 anaemia, dysmenorrhea, or endometriosis (affecting roughly 10% of the population) are likely to be affected even more.

A  2011 study conducted across 10 countries found women 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 women 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 women to share their personal experiences of menstruating whilst “on the job” in Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Here is what they’ve 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.

DEALING WITH 4 AND 5-YEAR OLDS

Teaching is one of the only professions where you must set your toilet break to a timetable. So when menstruating you have to *plan* ahead your visits for that time of the month. Since my classroom is my office I need to remember to take in with me whatever I need for the bathroom. My boss is a male so the conversation around periods is never a topic of choice for us and if I need to have time off due to menstrual pain, it comes out of sick leave.

MALE VS. FEMALE COLLEAGUES

We have free tampons and disposable pads 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.

WHEN YOUR BOSS CAN EMPATHISE:

Our workplace is mostly male doctors, however there are still females present from reception staff to nursing staff and our practice manager is a woman (and a nice one :D ) she’s happy to give sick days for whatever our issues without a drama. I wouldn’t like to approach the principal doctors. Although they are nice and approachable, they still have a business to run and wanting time off for a bad period would be an annoyance to them. They would probably prescribe something.

BATHROOM FACILITIES AT WORK

I noticed that they have just put paper bags in the female staff toilet for sanitary items, prior to this there was nothing.

SHARED BATHROOMS

We have a shared restroom, and I use a menstrual cup for my heavy flow, so I’m always wary to put some toilet paper down first before I empty my menstrual cup, it stops the contents sitting on the bottom. If I forget, I just brush the bowl and re-flush, no problem. Some of the males I work with may get a fright if I didn’t.

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.

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 women 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 women wear red bracelets to show they were on their period in an effort to monitor the amount of bathroom breaks (WHAT?!). 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 is 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 women as even more expensive to hire and that this will negatively affect women’s 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?

Tell us in the comments below or join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

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