I am old enough to remember when barely anyone discussed their mental health at work. Employees who were struggling usually did so in silence and employers did very little to encourage them to speak up. Thankfully attitudes are changing, accelerated by the Covid pandemic, which suddenly catapulted employee wellbeing to near the top of the list of leadership considerations. Recent research from Westfield Health showed 68 per cent of employees agreed the pandemic had made their employers more aware of mental health.
Most progressive organisations now have robust wellbeing policies in place, mental health ‘first aiders’ are commonplace and it’s no longer acceptable for employers to simply bury their heads in the sand.
Similarly, the taboo around menopause at work is being slowly but steadily eroded, thanks to stars like Davina McCall prominently highlighting the issue. But when it comes to talking about periods, far less progress has been made. It seems that menstruation is still waiting for a celebrity champion, or its turn to be in the media spotlight.
An estimated one in three women (or trans men or non-binary people with a womb) will experience abnormal periods at some point in their reproductive lives, often in the years leading up to menopause. Every day, heavy bleeding, PMS, crippling fatigue or painful conditions such as endometriosis make working life difficult for many thousands of employees. According to The British Medical Journal, on average, women lose a staggering nine days of productivity every year because of period symptoms. And there are times when periods become completely out of control – in the last year alone, 175 Scottish women needed a blood transfusion as a result of excessive menstrual bleeding.
If these figures come as a surprise, it’s probably because most who are unwell because of their periods are hiding the real reason from their colleagues and managers. Many won’t talk to their boss about it – perhaps for concerns of embarrassment or out of fear of being labelled ‘weak’ or ‘distracted’. There’s a real danger that, if undisclosed, prolonged menstrual health issues may be mistaken by managers for poor performance.
So it’s welcome news that earlier this summer, a new BSI standard was published on menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace. It’s not law, but it should help employers develop good practice. The advice covers culture, training, facilities, whether policies consider menstruation and menopause, and adjustments such as flexible working and comfort. I am confident it will make a positive difference, as I am already hearing more employers talking about it and asking for advice on things like management training and policy.
So what can employers do to make having periods, and talking about periods, easier? Rather than relying on your employees to initiate the (sometimes awkward) conversation, I’d suggest the answer lies in organisations taking the lead and proactively offering support around menstrual health.
Leaders should educate themselves about the issues periods can cause, train their teams and take the time to talk and listen to their female colleagues, in a safe environment. Anonymous feedback tools can be particularly helpful for those who may never feel comfortable discussing periods in a work setting.
Employers can help office-based staff through practical support, such as easy access to toilets and free period products. Even having a supply of pain relief or heat packs available could be the difference between an employee needing to go home or being able to stay at work.
A flexi-time arrangement could allow employees shorter hours on ‘bad period days’ without having to take a full day off, instead making the time up on another day, when they feel better.
Someone suffering from menstrual cramps or heavy bleeding may be unable to face a lengthy commute on a packed train, but could often still work from the comfort of their home, where they can sit with a hot water bottle, take additional breaks and be close to their bathroom.
Of course, those who can’t work flexibly or from home are often left with the choice between persevering through their discomfort, or calling in unwell. Should absence management triggers be adjusted to take account of those unable to work because of menstrual issues? Offering specific ‘menstrual leave’, however, is more likely to divide opinions. Some argue this can further stigmatise menstruation or provoke resentment from colleagues. Others feel this could be used by unscrupulous employers as another reason not to employ women of childbearing age.
Which leads me to my final point: it’s not just menstruating women whose career priorities have changed recently. People of all ages and genders are more likely to want to work for organisations where they will be treated well and that will do the right thing. By taking proactive steps to support all aspects of physical and mental health, employers won’t just be helping their female employees thrive but also creating a more positive and productive workplace for everyone.
Although supporting employees with their periods may feel daunting, it doesn’t need to be. Simply by listening, leading by example and creating a culture of empathy, openness and understanding, employers can help their people feel more comfortable – both about having their period and maybe even talking about it.
Jemma Forrest is senior associate in the employment, immigration and pensions team at Anderson Strathern