It’s not just menstrual leave: what SMEs can do to champion period positivity in the workplace

Whilst menstrual leave has become the poster child of period positivity in recent debates about menstruation, it's not enough to create period positive workplaces.

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Ever since Spain officially legalised menstrual leave last month, questions about how UK workplaces should accommodate for periods have come to the fore. Should a similar policy be imported into the UK? What measures should be crafted to help cramp-ridden women feel more comfortable during working hours?

According to YouGov data, Brits are narrowly in favour of offering menstrual leave in the UK, with 45% supporting the policy. Furthermore, attitudes towards menstrual leave are more supportive among younger workers, than among those in their 50s and 60s.

However, nurturing workplaces that are genuinely period positive takes much more than just policies. Menstrual leave alone – or something that looks like it – will not address the structural issues that continue to stigmatise periods.

The silent pain of periods in the workplace

Many women who face highly debilitating periods stop short of telling their bosses, because of the taboo attached to openly discussing menstruation.

According to a YouGov poll, some 59% of women who have called into work with cramps say they have not been truthful about the reasons for needing a sick day. Regardless of whether they take days off or not, according to the same poll, 24% of women say they get period pains that affect their ability to work.

Women also experience shame and silence when discussing periods in the workplace. According to data collected by the Bloody Good Employers programme launched in 2021, 89% of women had experienced some form of stress in the workplace because of their period, and 25% believed that taking time off work for menstrual health issues had negatively affected their career progression.

Importantly, when asked what employers could do to help, 63% said normalising the conversation around periods in the workplace would be a key starting point.

Destigmatising ‘that time of the month’

Whether it’s using sugar-sprinkled vocabulary that subtly alludes to menstruation, or simply avoiding the topic altogether, discussing periods continues to be heavily stigmatised in the workplace.

Period stigma in the workplace looks like having to sneakily shove a tampon or a pad up a sleeve, or jokes bouncing around about how women are poignantly emotional during their ‘time of the month’.

Company-specific policies or even wider law changes around menstrual leave could be a step in the right direction. But, these won’t be enough to tackle the deeply rooted institutional menstrual shame, a concept first developed by Chella Quint, author of Be Period Positive and Own Your Period, and founder of the Period Positive movement. This institutional ‘sickness’ corrodes the working world due to a lack of proper education and awareness.

“I think as soon as you start looking at who are the decision makers, and you start adding or subtracting the amount of menstrual education they’ve had, you kind of get the answer,” says Quint.

The lack of awareness that dominates industries that are male-dominated then reinforces institutional silence when it comes to understanding and discussing how menstruation affects workers’ effectiveness and comfort in the office.

“I think there’s something incredibly powerful about coming into a new workplace environment and seeing that they talk about menstruation in some way,” says Quint. “I actually do see changes in workplaces when they start talking about menstruation at all. I see a lot of employees and employers start communicating about broader issues about menstrual health, and also broader issues around menstrual shame.”

Fostering these conversations that break the taboo that envelops periods is therefore a foundational ingredient needed to create workplaces that are period positive at their core.

The sales pitch for period positivity

Providing period products in office bathrooms and debating whether menstrual leave is the right step for your company is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Policies are great, however, if there isn’t a culture that supports the policy, then not many people are going to benefit,” says Elysha Paige,Manager of the Bloody Good Employers Programme of the Bloody Good Period social enterprise.

“There is a business case for doing this work. We know that people who are happier at work are less likely to burnout and more likely to be productive over a long period of time,” says Paige, “The more flexibility that people have, the more empowered they are to do good work when they feel like they can.”

Female entrepreneurs also agree that flexibility and other holistic approaches to period positivity are smart for business.

Leila Martyn, Founder of MyOva, agrees that menstrual leave alone is not enough. “Employers could also provide education on menstrual health and wellbeing as part of women’s health initiatives on managing menstrual pain and other common gynaecological conditions,” says Martyn.

“However, we need to be careful not to further stigmatise women by offering menstrual leave and ensuring it is treated just like any other form of sick leave, so women are not penalised for taking it,” warns Martyn.

Positive steps forward

Workplaces play a key part in deconstructing stigmas that surround periods. But, they’re just one part of a larger societal issue. Stigmas around periods heavily stem from gaps in educational systems.

This is gradually changing. “We are improving menstruation education – it’s been added to the national curriculum for sex education,” points out Quint. “What we want to do now is just remind employers that their up-and-coming employees know a lot more about periods than the current staff do.”

“Employers would benefit from keeping up with the current and future level of knowledge that people now have about periods by educating themselves.”

While the road to period positivity still looks winding, with plenty of obstacles on the way, mentalities are gradually changing. Businesses should face the fact that uncomfortable conversations and holistic period positive approaches are a winning recipe to happier employees and better workplaces.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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