Menstrual health at work matters. Period.

08 March 2023      Emma Brookes, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

I can’t count the amount of managers I’ve had over the last 26 years but I guess I have only spoken about menstrual health with about three of them. I doubt that I am alone. The Global Menstrual Collective (GMC) explain that menstruation is a normal biological process experienced by half the world’s population for a significant part of their lives, yet widespread stigma and taboos mean that it remains a source of fear, embarrassment and shame. As a result, there hasn’t been much conversation about menstrual health in the workplace traditionally but that is changing and rightly so. Let me tell you why.

Firstly, I feel it is very important to acknowledge that this blog is aligned with International Women’s Day 2023 and although some of my linked documents refer to women, I recognise that not all women menstruate and not all people who menstruate identify as women. I am writing with the IWD ethos of raising awareness, building solidarity and sharing different perspectives. For clarity, GMC define menstrual health as the “state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease of infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle”.

Secondly, this topic is front and centre of my mind at the moment. I recently recorded a video to share my personal story in the hope that it offers insight and support to others who may be going through similar difficulties. My story is about the battle for my own menstrual and mental health over the last three years with reference to perimenopause, endometriosis and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). Luckily not life-threatening, but I had to fight every step of the way to get diagnosed and get treated, and I know my battle is far from over.

It is obvious there has been a real shift in the way we think about menopause in society and at work over recent years, due to high-profile campaigns such as Rock My Menopause and sharing of stories from celebrities such as Davina McCall. So why should menstrual health be next in line to be addressed as a workplace issue? Well, according to the British Medical Journal, period symptoms may be linked to nearly nine days of lost productivity every year, importantly, through presenteeism not sickness absence. In terms of wellbeing, studies carried out by Bloody Good Period have shown that 89% of respondents have experienced anxiety of stress in the workplace due to their period.

Back in January I attended a CIPD Northern Policy Forum Roundtable Consultation focused on menstrual health. The premise being that people practitioners were there to share views, ideas and experiences with a view to scoping new CIPD guidance and developing public policy recommendations. We discussed how to ensure that workers receive the right understanding and support, the cultural considerations that need to be taken into account and what other practices would be helpful. The Policy team at CIPD are hoping to launch guidance before the end of 2023 and I will be sure to provide updates to our members.

But what is happening out there already? The 2022 Women’s Health Strategy for England (first of its kind), prioritises the area of menstrual health and gynaecological conditions and, with specific reference to the workplace, outlines removing barriers to participation with support for health issues such as period problems, endometriosis, fertility treatment, miscarriage and menopause. It is interesting to note that they reference the predominantly female workforce within NHS and social care and the vital need to recruit, retain and support those workforces to reach their full potential. With female colleagues representing approximately 48% of the HE workforce (based on HESA data), it is also a strong case to argue that you could improve talent attraction and retention in your institution if you get this right by ensuring people’s dignity and that no-one is put at a disadvantage in the workplace from menstruation. This removal of barriers is critical if we are to #embraceequity in line with the theme of IWD 2023.

As an employer you can review your current provisions and make some simple improvements – it’s not necessarily an area that requires significant funding or lots of additional resource. Admittedly, there’s a lot of press attention about the introduction of “menstrual leave”, such as that being offered by Spain, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Zambia, although the possibility it may do more harm than good is explored in this People Management article. However, a considerable amount of progress could be made by just ensuring that your colleagues receive the right understanding and support.

Perhaps you could evaluate how easy it is to access period products across your campus. Introduce training for line managers and consider a menstruation policy or guidance. Make specific reference to menstrual health in your wellbeing content and consider how you can break down taboos through discussion. Inclusive Employers describe a range of practical actions you can take, including how to foster an open and transparent culture or use a tool such as their Inclusion Passport to help managers have sensitive conversations with colleagues. I would love to hear from any members that are trailblazers in this area of wellbeing, or want to be and are on a path of making improvements.

I currently co-ordinate the UHR online Ways of Working Group where members share stories of success and learning in adapting HR & OD practices for a hybrid workforce. Therefore, it is certainly not lost on me that one of the hugely supportive factors for menstrual health could be the increased flexibility in working practices through hybrid/agile/dynamic working. The ability to work from home, perhaps at short notice, when experiencing menstrual pain or just trying to manage heavy bleeding is a game-changer. Many readers will know the benefit of being able to work with a hot water bottle resting against your stomach, but this may not be something that you feel comfortable doing in the shared office environment. I mentioned earlier my own personal medical issues and I can honestly say that if I was required to work on-site regularly in the last 12-24 months then I would have been forced to take repetitive, and likely long-term, sickness absence.

As I come to the end of this article, I want to be clear that if you’re reading this and you are struggling with your menstrual health – it is ok and you are not alone. My experience leads me to recommend that anyone suffering should definitely track their symptoms (apps such as Clue or Flo are fab and free!) and pursue available medical routes for as long as it takes to get the help needed. Check out the RCGP’s toolkit for patients and carers or the NHS Patient info site which aims to “empower you to understand your condition and take control of your own health”.

Finally, last year for IWD I wrote a piece on Gender Pay Gaps and challenged the timespan it might take to make a seismic shift in fixing the problem; however I do understand that the pay gap problem is complex… and costly!! It seems to me that the issue I have raised today is much more about employers taking easy and small incremental steps that start with raising awareness and opening up channels for communication. You know what I say? About bloody time!

Emma Brookes

Strategic Projects and Research Manager

8 March 2023

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