Periods and the workplace: what’s to be done?

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I’m one of the lucky ones. That rare breed of girl that other girls love to hate. Why? Because I’m in that select group of 20%. The 20% of women who don’t suffer from period pains. Therefore, I feel rather underqualified in writing this article. I’ve never sat at work with a hot water bottle under my desk. I’ve never had to knock back paracetamol like it is vodka shots in Klute. I’ve never had to miss school or work because of my period.

Therefore, I turned to my best group of gal pals and asked them over coffee about the relationship they have with work and their periods. At first, shy to openly talk about the red stuff, they started nattering away about the times they’ve missed lectures and seminars, curled into balls, shut their eyes, and waited for the pain to go away. Worse times when the partner they were seeing at the time called 111, not understanding that the agonizing pain they were experiencing was the side-effects of menstruation. What became clear was that, for most of my girlfriends, period pains are something they fear, deal with, and move on from every month. 

For most of my girlfriends, period pains are something they fear, deal with and move on from every month

But what’s the alternative? Could menstrual leave become a thing? Companies like Nike have incorporated it as a part of their work policy since 2007. Women in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are allowed to request days off from work for their period. Whilst I would describe myself as unafraid to talk about taboo topics, the idea of walking up to my boss – a 50-year-old man with a receding hairline – and talking about periods, seems absurd.

Menstrual leave is all good in theory, but can it work in a society where periods are still talked about in hushed whispers? In a society where my school teacher shouted at me for leaking blood onto a seat? A society where GPs (the supposed experts) often ignore or dismiss women when confronted with their period problems, even though they are treatable? 

There is another big obstacle that gets in the way whenever menstrual leave is discussed. And that is women. Most women hate the idea of being treated any differently. We hate the idea that menstrual leave could encourage employers to hire men instead. We hate even more that it could further stereotypes of us being ‘weak beings’, ruled by our hormones. That we are unable to compete in the workplace on par with men. 

Menstrual leave is all good in theory, but can it work in a society where periods are still talked about in hushed whispers?

In 2016, when Co-Exist, a community arts centre in Bristol, became the first business in the UK to offer menstrual leave, they were harassed. They were accused of setting back feminism 100 years. Some companies, like Nike, have been accused of using menstrual leave as a branding opportunity. They have latched onto the commercialisation and popularisation of feminism to help their brand, not to help their employees.

As I write this article, 800 million people are on their period. Yet society is still not able to talk about it. It was only last week that I left a box of tampons in the kitchen to return to very red-faced, awkward male housemates. It’s time we talked about periods freely in order to open up debates in the workplace and education about the nature of how we treat women with dysmenorrhea (painful periods). 

Men make up 80% of all managers in the workplace. As such, menstrual leave is hardly a priority for those who dictate work policies. The British Medical Journal found that, on average, people who experience periods lose nine days of productivity a year because of it. So, what’s the solution? How do we help people who experience excruciating menstrual pain in the workplace? 

Let’s start talking about periods

The answer is easy, but not quick to implement. We need to talk about periods. We need to help people feel comfortable enough to go up to their boss and ask for a few hours, a day or two off work. Even just a relaxing place to sit. Anything to make dealing with periods in the workplace easier. Men also need to become more comfortable with the topic of periods, so that when someone suffering from period pain asks for a day off, their immediate response isn’t “where’s my day off?” Perhaps labelling it ‘menstrual leave’ creates too much segregation – incorporating period problems more openly into sick leave seems wiser. 

To put it simply, there is one solution. Let’s start talking about periods.  

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