How can employers be more ‘period-savvy’?

Business Insights

The stigma attached to periods manifests in many ways and in the workplace, it can often prove quite a difficult obstacle to overcome. In 2018, there were 15.3 million women aged over 16 in employment, with the total female employment rate being 71.4 per cent — the highest ever figure since 1971, when records began.

Many of these women will be dealing with PMS on the job, but this is often overlooked by bosses and menstrual taboos can leave women feeling isolated. Could employers be more accommodating to the monthly cycle, and if so, how? Join us as we explore the unspoken office code for all things menstruation.

Striking a balance for workplace equality

Women are often dismissed as being overcome by hormones when ‘the time of the month’ strikes, a jibe which has left women feeling that nothing period related should be voiced at work. This silencing of periods results from an outdated belief that periods make women ‘weak’ and ‘irrational’ as they bow to the mercy of their hormones. These attitudes may have made girls feel that from getting signs of first period onwards, they shouldn’t openly discuss menstruation in school, which then progresses into the workplace.

Women have been longstanding advocates for workplace equality. Periods are a key concern for women in the workplace and there’s a historic legacy of keeping period-talk hushed in corporate environments.

A recent survey found that one third of men think talking about periods in the workplace is unprofessional. Moreover, periods are viewed as a source of embarrassment in the workplace, with findings showing women would rather admit to a mistake at work than talk about their period in front of male co-workers.

Just 27 per cent of women who have suffered period pain at work told their employer it was affecting their performance, according to a YouGov survey. A further 33 per cent said they’d made up an excuse in the past. It seems women are left to either grin and bear it in silence, sacrifice statutory sick days, or endure the wrath of the menstrual stigma.

What is the reality?

Back in 2018, after suffering from extreme menopause symptoms, namely heavy bleeding that had caused anaemia, Mandy Davies took her medication to work. When the container of the diluted mixture was misplaced, she panicked upon noticing two men drinking water nearby.

Suspecting her medication could have been in the jug the men were drinking from, Ms Davies voiced her fear and faced an in-depth investigation from her company. She was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct. Her medication wasn’t in the water in question, and after a court dispute she was awarded £19,000 for lost pay and compensation for injury to feelings.

The case referred to The Equality Act 2010, which covers nine characteristics — and while period related problems are not named, at their most severe, they can prevent women from carrying out their duties. This is a recognised element of having a disability.

HR departments are facing a range of employee complaints, and period related issues are having an increased impact on employee welfare. More than one in ten women have reported being the recipient of negative comments in relation to menstruation.

These micro-aggressions are leading to an increase in presenteeism — where employees who aren’t fit to work still attend in order to fulfil what is required of them. One study revealed 80.7 per cent of respondents said they lost an average of 23.2 days per year to presenteeism and reduced productivity, linked to PMS.

How can we avoid this?

Recently a Japanese department store assigned ‘period badges’ to female staff who were menstruating in a bid to tackle the stigma of periods using the pink cartoon of Seiri Chan — whose name translates to ‘Miss Period’. The move faced backlash with claims of harassment. It’s unlikely a step like this would be taken in UK workplaces, but what steps can employers consider when it comes to resolving the stigma?

Emma Barnett, author of Period, It’s About Bloody Time expressed how menstrual leave might not be feasible for larger companies, but that period pain should be a valid reason for taking sick leave. Flexible working would allow female employees to manage their symptoms. Barnett discussed the need for more honesty surrounding periods and suggested workplaces implement ‘menstrual policy’ to give women clearer rights.

There’s certainly room for improvement on period-friendly workplaces, from having set policies in place to encouraging openness to tackle the menstrual stigma.


House of Commons Library, Andrew Powell, 8/04/2019 Women and The Economy