How can things change if there is so little action?

Creating period-friendly workplaces is not bloody rocket science. #ItsTimeForAction #MHDay2021

By Danielle Keiser, Nikki van de Veerdonk (MH Hub), Jennifer Martin (Pandemic Periods/Women in Global Health Finland) and Pavita Singh (Girls Health Ed)

*Our use of women and girls includes transwomen, womxn, femmes, non-identifying and non-binary individuals who may be impacted by particular health or equity issues due to their sex or gender identity.

For the purpose of this article, the workplace refers to any formal or informal context in which people are engaged in income-generating activities, both in-person or remote.

According to Water Aid (2021), the average woman* will menstruate once a month, for roughly 35 to 40 years of her life. That’s approximately 3000 days — more than 8 years — of periods during her lifetime.

Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May) exists to highlight the important role that menstrual health and hygiene play in enabling people who menstruate to meet their full potential. However, the programmatic focus on menstruation to-date has mostly been on adolescent girls with a very limited focus on menstruation and working women.

Is the space and place for discussing gender equality so limited that we cannot discuss women’s basic needs where they work, as well?

The taboo around menstruation at work

Very few workplaces have been improved to support menstrual health. Defined in April 2021 as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity in relation to the menstrual cycle, ensuring an optimal state of menstrual health is not only a personal responsibility, but a social one that demands attention from employers everywhere.

The menstrual taboo can manifest in different ways in the workplace. On an individual level, the lack of access to period products is one. Not having a clean, comfortable and WASH-equipped place to manage menstruation is another. On the interpersonal level, women* are often unable to openly discuss or address menstrual health in a work environment, citing that it’s ‘too personal to be professional’.

This is problematic for numerous reasons, and can be exacerbated when:

  • Norms related to women’s roles reinforce discriminatory practices leading to the experience of shame or, worse, exclusion, because they are menstruating;
  • There is a lack of safe access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities to hygienically manage menstruation, such as changing menstrual materials in private and having a place to dispose of them safely and discreetly;
  • They experience negative health consequences because there are limited or no supplies or pain management solutions; and/or
  • They power through their consistent monthly menstrual pain and discomfort, are reluctant to report symptoms or seek treatment for potential menstrual-related disorders.

In a world designed by men for men, it is no wonder that women’s basic menstrual health needs or concerns have been widely ignored or minimally addressed. This is not inclusive.

For bleeding for 8 years over the course of one’s life, it is imperative that we change the narrative of what it means to be a woman*at work and how to create more gender-responsive, period-friendly workplaces.

If we want more women to propel the economy forward, their basic needs must be met. Period.

What does a period-friendly workplace look like?

Encompassing a right-based approach that champions diversity, and recognises that the needs of different genders is essential to optimising the safety, health and wellbeing of all workers. Everyone must feel comfortable talking about their health and health needs at work, and employers should be willing to cater to the needs of their employees. Providing the appropriate facilities and creating a period-friendly environment, helps enable individuals that menstruate to be able to equally contribute to the workforce.

Concrete ways to do this are:

  • Providing free period products in all bathrooms. According to a study conducted by Free The Tampons, 86% of women have started their period in public without access to the period products that they need to function throughout the day. Providing period products in all bathrooms addresses gender equity and helps employees avoid stressful moments and can help lessen the burden of having to purchase period products for use at work
  • Safe, hygienic and discreet disposal in all washrooms, including instructions for responsible disposal and routine janitorial maintenance
  • Flexible working when possible (as opposed to menstrual leave), especially if tasks can be effectively managed from home, or making up for hours at another time (when applicable)
  • A relaxing space in the workplace, where possible to provide the feeling of comfort and support to take rest breaks, when and if needed
  • Promote an open conversation that acknowledges individual health differences. Destigmatizing menstruation can be accomplished through raising awareness and creating a shared and empathic culture where all employees feel like they can address their health without negative consequences. Ensuring that managers and HR are knowledgeable about reproductive and menstrual health is key towards the ultimately incorporation of menstrual health into a broader diversity and inclusion strategy.
  • Creating a budget line for ensuring a period-friendly workplace. If money is set aside to provide free toilet paper and cleaning supplies, basic period products should be included in the same budget.
  • Menstrual health literacy for all the workplace for individuals that menstruate and those that do not. This can include access to high-quality information about menstrual health, the cycle as well as menopause. This helps women feel more comfortable, recognize troubling symptoms for potential diagnosis and treatment of menstrual conditions or disorders, and contributes to the overall collective, knowledge, acceptance and support.

Countering the pushback

Menstruation is not a disability and people who menstruate are not inherently at a disadvantage. However, acknowledging the differences between those who have periods and those who do not is essential in 2021 and beyond.

Providing period products does not mean alleviating individual responsibility to purchase the products women need in their everyday lives.

Like a first aid kit or toilet paper, it means taking responsibility and providing things to address the basic needs of the human body.

It’s time for action

Luckily, there are amazing efforts to make menstrual health matter in the workplace:

  • A recent scheme by Bloody Good Period is breaking the silence around menstruation in the workplace with their ‘Bloody Good Employer Scheme’ where employers can support normalising conversation about menstruation in the workplace.
  • Many menstrual coaches are starting to focus on ‘cycle syncing’, or educating women to use their menstrual cycles as a compass for optimizing productivity. This is based on the scientifically validated effects that estrogen and progesterone hormones have on women*’s overall physical, mental and social well-being, especially if the the energy of the follicular and ovulatory phases is leveraged for action and social activities, and the luteal and menstrual for more reflection and rest.
  • Flo Health App partnered with designer Sophia Luu to curate a set of four menstruation-related Slack emojis to better represent the experiences of people who menstruate.

Employers and places where people work must start considering the menstrual health needs of their employees, and take concrete steps to accommodate those who need to manage their periods. The focus should be on creating a workplace that responds to menstrual needs, a step that can facilitate both private and public sector policy change at national, regional and international levels.

This is why we are calling for all companies, civil society, government, multi-laterals, and non-government organisations to promote open, inclusive, gender-responsive and equity-driven policies, like having period-friendly workplaces.

Global, coordinated action is needed now to prioritize menstruation in the workplace.

We can and we should do better. It’s not bloody rocket science!

#ItsTimeForAction #MHDay2021

A social impact agency specializing in gender, female & menstrual health