Menstrual cycle awareness

Menstrual cycle awareness: Let's talk about periods.

Published on 23/10/23

Amended on 30/10/23

How to promote menstrual cycle awareness and support in the workplace

Woman holding her stomach in pain

It’s high time periods were regarded as a normal part of life, not least because they directly affect almost half the population for a large part of their working lives.

Still a taboo subject for many, the ups and downs of the menstrual cycle can be a source of offence, shame or squeamishness. It is something all women 'just have to get on with' but it can sometimes be used to ridicule or blame women for "irrational" or emotional behaviour.

We’ve come a long way in embracing the unique qualities women can bring to the workplace. But when it comes to recognising their different needs, a lot more could be done to offer a more open, supportive environment, particularly for those who struggle with the physical and mental effects of their menstrual cycle.

Along with our partners, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), we recently launched our latest Health and Wellbeing at Work report,1 which showed that only 18% of organisations surveyed included support for menstrual health to a moderate or large extent, with 55% offering none at all.

While 39% said they offered paid sick leave for menstrual health, only 22% offered adjustments to duties or tasks and 20% offered more breaks when needed. Fewer than a third provided free sanitary products at work.

Woman with lower back pain in the office

For a large percentage of women, painful cramps, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, feeling low or anxious are all very common menstrual symptoms that can last from a couple of days to as long as a week at a time. The impact these experiences can have on their work can vary widely.

Some women’s physical discomfort is exacerbated by their environment, including sitting or being on their feet for long spells; for others, especially those who have heavy flows, discreetly managing the practicalities of frequent trips to the loo can be challenging and stressful.

While a proportion of women endure quite debilitating symptoms every month, particularly if they suffer from conditions such as endometriosis or fibroids, others experience severe discomfort only occasionally. There’s no question that this can impinge on workplace performance at times, though voicing it can leave women open to accusations that they’re using it as an excuse, or are not up to the job.

In one survey2, around one in seven women said they had taken time off work or school during their period. Although just under 81% continued to work through their symptoms, they felt their productivity was significantly affected.

Research by campaign group
Bloody Good Employers

Campaign group, Bloody Good Employers, found during their research3 that 89% of women surveyed had experienced anxiety or stress in the workplace due to their period yet 33% felt it was more professional not to mention menstrual health to their employer. A quarter reported feeling that time they had taken off due to menstrual health issues had impacted their career progression.

Being open and honest about the issue is the only way to find solutions. We know that our male colleagues would want and expect the same level of understanding and respect for the women in their lives, whether mothers, sisters, friends or partners, as their female co-workers deserve.

Even small changes, made by a thoughtful, supportive employer, could make a huge difference to women’s wellbeing, confidence and ability to work at their best, as well as fostering greater trust and loyalty:

  • Practical needs: hassle-free access to pain relief, loo breaks, or a short walk to ease abdominal discomfort.
  • Period products available at all times.
  • Uniforms: dress codes should be practical and comfortable for everyone throughout the entire month.
  • Flexible working: allowing women the autonomy to organise their schedule around symptoms.
  • Encourage and shape a culture of respect, empathy and inclusion for women through webinars and workshops.
  • Easy access to medical advice for those experiencing severe symptoms or may need medical intervention.
  • Menstruation policies that encourage open dialogue and recognise when women need extra support.
  • 'Menstrual leave': many organisations are starting to offer time off to recover to avoid 'unfairness'.

So let’s bring menstruation into the workplace conversation, break down those final taboos and free women to be themselves at work, any day of the month.