This year, app developer Forza Football made great progress for both staff wellbeing and the tech industry by becoming one of the world’s first “period friendly” workplaces. The Swedish company used a £44,900 grant to provide resources and implement strategies that will ensure its female staff feel valued, and that their bodily functions are honoured.
While this is an incredible achievement, it is still a rarity for many women. With the percentage of women being placed in senior positions thought to be decreasing in recent years, it is no surprise that so many women are still plagued by menstrual taboos in their workplace. As more businesses take stock of the wellbeing of all their employees, menstrual health should be considered an equal priority to mental and physical health.
Why Should We Take Note of Periods?
It’s a truism that for many male employers, the experiences and struggles of menstruating women are a complete mystery. While it may not be a topic that comes naturally to them, it is vital that employers are aware of the way in which women can be impacted by their menstrual cycle, and how it can affect their work.
Various studies have been conducted over the years to reveal the realities of menstrual symptoms, and the discomfort they can cause millions of women. One study found that menstrual pain was experienced by 84.1% of women, with 43.1% stating that pain occurred with every single period. A separate study revealed that 20% of women suffering from period pain felt that this pain interfered with their daily activities, including work.
While physical symptoms are important, they say nothing of the various mental health implications that periods can have for many women. PMS may be reduced to a punch line in many circumstances, but it is a medically recognised condition that severely affects between 20%-40% of menstruating women . Women suffering from PMS can experience a variety of symptoms, including depression, mood swings and anxiety, all of which can impact their wellbeing in the workplace.
It is this lack of understanding that prevents women from coming forward when they are experiencing cramps, nausea or mental health struggles during what is a perfectly natural bodily function. By providing the right facilities and creating the right environment, women can feel as though their experiences and their discomfort are valid, rather than stigmatised and shamed.
Providing Sanitary Bins
The most important step towards creating a work environment that supports women’s menstrual health is to have clean, reliable sanitary bins available in all your washroom services. This may seem like the bare minimum, but it is not entirely uncommon for employers – especially male employers in small businesses – to be unaware of their obligations regarding sanitary waste disposal.
It is vital that your sanitary disposal provider is reliable, and able to empty and clean your bins as often as you need. Waste buildup not only creates hygiene risks, but also makes it less likely that your female employees will want to use the facilities in the first place. This can make their workday unpleasant at best and unsafe at worst if they are not changing their menstrual products frequently.
More importantly, a lack of clean and adequate waste disposal units sends the message that the wellbeing of your female staff is not a priority for the business. Ensuring that these basic needs are met will prevent any feelings of resentment, and ensure that employees feel noticed and valued.
Providing Sanitary Products
Sanitary bins are certainly not the only service that you can incorporate into women’s washroom services to encourage a period-friendly environment. Providing free sanitary product dispensers or baskets should be feasible for any business owner, and supports women in several ways.
Firstly, it removes any stress that women may feel if they have left their sanitary products at home. Instead of rushing to the store on their lunch in a panic, or having to ask their co-workers to secretly spare them a tampon under the table, women can rest assured that they will never be caught out while at work.
Secondly, by providing free sanitary products, employers are also supporting those women who struggle to buy their own. Period poverty has caused thousands of women and girls to regularly miss work or school when they do not have access to sanitary products. By providing them for free, you are ensuring that your female employees are able to come to work, regardless of their personal or financial situation.
Providing a Relaxation Space
Access to these kinds of facilities and products is very important, but it is not necessarily what causes women the most stress when they menstruate while at work. For women who experience severe physical or mental symptoms, coming to work can cause a great deal of stress when they are expected to perform at their usual level.
In fact, women are consistently known to report any severe pain, sleep deprivation or sickness during their menstrual cycle as cold symptoms, for fear that they will not be taken seriously by their employers.
One solution is for employers to provide a more flexible routine for women suffering from extreme menstrual symptoms. For example, allowing women to take regular breaks throughout the day should they need them can alleviate some of this unnecessary stress.
Taking a 10-minute break to lie down, sit with a hot water bottle or just step outside for some fresh air costs nothing and yet can help women feel more relaxed, focused and productive throughout the workday.
This kind of procedure also paves the way for women to be able to speak openly about their experiences in the workplace. This more open and understanding environment only further helps to support women, and to eventually eliminate period stigma in the workplace.
Introducing Menstrual Leave
Introducing the idea of paid menstrual leave certainly takes more organisation than putting free tampons in the women’s bathroom, but it is an increasingly popular wellbeing strategy. While a 15-minute break may be perfectly adequate for some women, others may experience symptoms severe enough that they are not able to perform their usual tasks at all.
Putting these procedures into practice need not be a hugely difficult task, as most employers already have processes in place to deal with other kinds of leave, including sickness, compassionate leave and maternity leave.
The most important thing to note when implementing menstrual leave is the language used to describe it. Menstrual leave is distinct from sick leave and should never be treated as such, as this can help to reinforce the idea that periods are a “dirty” process as opposed to a natural bodily function.
Of course, it is understandable that some employers may feel concerned that the majority of their female workforce may need to take regular time off work. However, businesses such as the Victorian Women’s Trust offices in Melbourne have proved that this need not be the case. For them, the total number of days off due to menstruation in the last 18 months was just seven or eight. Fundamentally, women do not want to be away from work; they simply want to take care of their health without impacting negatively on their career.
Creating a period-friendly workplace does not have to involve a great deal of money, or an entire restructuring of your HR system. Many positive changes can be made by simply taking an open and supportive approach, and asking female employees what it is that they need. The biggest commitments to creating this kind of workplace are time and understanding, and being open to rethinking the cultural stigmas that have held women back for so many years.