In the wake of a transformative era post-pandemic, supporting employee wellbeing has never been more critical. As rates of burnout soar and phenomena such as ‘silent quitting’ gain momentum, workplaces are called upon to recognize and accommodate the diverse needs of their employees.
At the heart of employee wellbeing are several factors, among which menstrual health stands as a pivotal yet often disregarded component. Despite impacting nearly half of the workforce, the discourse surrounding menstrual health remains veiled in silence and stigma within workplace environments.
The challenges tied to menstrual health profoundly influence the daily experiences of women and those who menstruate in the workplace. Insufficient infrastructures, such as the absence of accessible menstrual products in the office or inadequate private spaces for comfort and necessary changes, pose hurdles. Moreover, the rigidities of traditional work setups—demanding fixed office hours, prolonged sitting or standing, bright lighting, and inflexible break times—exacerbate discomfort and hinder productivity.
The ramifications of overlooking menstrual health at work intersect with existing disparities faced by women in professional settings. Women frequently encounter barriers to career progression, ranging from sidelined opportunities due to family obligations to encountering biases tied to age and gender. The stigma associated with requesting accommodations for menstrual health further perpetuates the stereotype of reduced commitment or capability. This compounds existing inequalities, including the persistence of the gender pay gap and limited access to flexible work arrangements.
Advancing menstrual health in the workplace is intricate, involving a delicate balance between meeting the needs of the cyclical body and dismantling deep-rooted stereotypes that have historically labeled women as weak or overly emotional due to their bodies and hormones. Confronting this challenge necessitates navigating ingrained societal biases that perpetuate harmful attitudes, such as attributing a woman’s emotions or expressions of frustration to her menstrual cycle. Addressing menstrual health at work requires not only accommodating the biological realities but also confronting and reshaping pervasive societal narratives that undermine women’s credibility and autonomy in professional settings.
The current state of menstrual health at work
Examining the current state of menstrual health in workplaces reveals prevalent challenges faced by many individuals. Research, like that conducted by Radboud University Medical Centre in 2021, indicates that a third of the 42,000 women it surveyed experienced such intense pain during menstruation they were unable to carry out daily tasks. Despite this, half of these individuals chose not to discuss their experiences.
A recent report by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development in the UK highlighted how menstruation can impact work experiences negatively. 69% of participants reported facing difficulties at work due to their periods, with more than half even missing work due to severe symptoms. Additionally, three-fifths of the 2,000 women admitted to working while feeling unwell, possibly due to the pressure of work commitments.
Only one in 10 stated their workplaces provided support for menstrual health – most never felt comfortable voicing their problems to their managers, even lying about their reasons for taking sick leave for fear of not being taken seriously.
It is clear this reality needs to change. So how can we challenge such deep-rooted stigma?
Menstrual leave: is it the right step forward?
One such attempt was made by Spain, which at the end of 2022 became the first country to ensure legal right to paid menstrual leave for workers. The bill put forward plans to allow three days of paid leave per month for those who experienced particularly difficult symptoms and ‘debilitating’ periods.
Whilst a giant leap forward in some ways for female health and rights, the bill raised as many challenges as it solved. For example, on a practical level, those seeking leave from their employers needed a medical note, which can be hard to come by when menstrual pain is easily downplayed by medical professionals. The bill also failed to cover symptoms that extended beyond physical ailments. Conditions such as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder, which affects mental health throughout the cycle can be hard to explain, harder to prove, and pose a significant hurdle to coping with everyday life.
Furthermore, the bill required workers to be comfortable in presenting the doctors note and subsequently discussing their needs with their employers, trusting their requests would be taken seriously. For this to happen successfully, managers must be educated and trained to navigate such conversations. After all, there are various reasons that discussing menstrual health could cause distress beyond general embarrassment, with infertility, gender dysphoria and medical trauma all being at the top of the list.
Finally, menstrual leave overlooks the role of connection for employees with painful conditions: it urges them to stay home, away from their community and colleagues, simultaneously normalizing the problem and erecting another barrier between workers based on sex. Evidently, by separating menstrual pain and disorders from sick leave, there is a real risk of further reinforcing gender discrimination.
Whilst the option to take sick leave for any reason where a worker feels unable to attend to their duties should absolutely exist, the real question becomes: is menstrual leave the best way to break the taboo in the workplace?
The future of menstrual health at work
Menstruation is not the problem: it is perfectly possible for someone with a menstrual cycle to stay on top of one month’s work. While women may experience fatigue or pain during menstruation, the following weeks are usually associated with increased energy and productivity, thanks to the rise in oestrogen. What is harmful for women and people who menstruate are workplaces designed to ignore physical and psychological needs; jokes and stereotypes that portray women as unstable; and organizational cultures that glamorize overworking and exhaustion.
What can companies do in practice? Providing free menstrual products within the office ensures accessibility and addresses immediate needs. Designating private spaces for stretching and resting offers comfort and respite for those experiencing fatigue or cramps in the office. Embracing flexible schedules and breaks acknowledges the varied experiences of individuals and allows for necessary adjustments. Educating the entire staff, including managers, about menstrual health fosters understanding and empathy, reducing stigma and creating a more inclusive environment. Cultivating a supportive culture, where discussions about menstrual health are normalized and met with empathy, ensures that individuals feel comfortable voicing their needs.
We need to reframe menstrual health as central to health and wellbeing and key to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. By doing so we can cultivate a culture of compassion – at work and beyond – which prioritises and supports employee safety and wellbeing.
Maria Carmen Punzi is a PhD researcher, consultant, and activist specializing in menstrual health, sexual and reproductive health, and gender equity. Since 2017, she has been actively involved in connecting the for-profit, non-profit, and academic sectors to address these issues. In 2019, she received a five-year funding for her PhD at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, focusing on menstrual health and social enterprises.
Her work acknowledges the impact of menstrual health on women's opportunities and participation in society, despite its limited presence in gender equity discussions. Maria Carmen engages in media debates and social change projects, contributing to discussions on menstrual leave and free period products. Her efforts have influenced policy discussions in the Dutch Parliament.
Additionally, she advocates for menstrual product accessibility, securing funding for free products on her university campus. She consults with companies on accommodating menstrual needs in the workplace and works with various organizations on projects related to her areas of expertise.
Outside her professional activities, she manages the @periodswithmariacarmen Instagram page, creating engaging content about the menstrual cycle.