May 14, 2019

Overcoming Period Stigma in the Workplace

Stigma against periods continues to affect women and trans men around the world. In the UK, conversation has started to break down the taboo around menstruation, but the issue continues to impact those who have periods. Period stigma can manifest itself in numerous different ways, from explicit comments to lack of conversation and facilities.

To uncover the extent of period stigma in UK workplaces, we’ve surveyed 2,000 menstruators about their experiences. Our results highlight issues across British industries that can be addressed to make working life better for many in the workforce.  

What is the Issue?

Currently, half of menstruators (47%) say there is a definite stigma around periods in the workplace. When asked about ways period stigma manifests itself, however, it seems the problem may be even wider-reaching than this.

There is currently a lack of conversation around menstruation in the workplace, with six in ten survey respondents (60%) saying they feel unable to discuss menstruation at all with their colleagues or managers. This trend is more prominent in male-dominated workspaces, where 75% of menstruators feel completely unable to address or discuss this bodily function at work.

This lack of conversation is leading to issues for women when it comes to health. Menstruation cycles can cause a range of medical issues from cramps to endometriosis and migraines. Owing to period stigma, well over half of those who suffer from these conditions (57%) have had to lie to their managers about the reason for sick days.

As well as being awkward for the employee, this could have knock-on effects for their health at work. If workers felt able to speak honestly and openly about the reasons for their sick days, employers would be able to better provide support for them in the workplace.

The reasons for not disclosing period-related health problems don’t entirely stem from lack of conversation. Almost one-third (30%) say their colleagues don’t take period pain seriously. A number of survey respondents had even been told that their period pain “is not a real illness”.

Negative associations with periods, a sense of somehow being unclean, also affects behaviours within the workplace. For example, almost three-quarters of menstruators (74%) say they feel as though they must hide any sanitary products at work.

The Impact of Period Stigma

Period stigma in the workplace has an impact beyond preventing conversations. When people don’t discuss menstruation, it can lead to oversight when it comes to the facilities needed to support those who experience it:

  • Over one-quarter of menstruators do not have sanitary bins at their work
  • Almost one-third do not have constant access to a toilet
  • 72% have no way of getting sanitary products at work
  • Just 7% can request back supports to help alleviate pain
  • Only 3% have access to heat pads to ease cramping

Almost one in ten survey respondents say they do not have any of the above at their workplace.

Failing to address period stigma can lead to more extreme issues, including confrontational comments. According to our survey, one in ten menstruators has directly faced negative comments about their period while at work. These range from microaggressions such as “it’d get better if you had kids”, to derogatory slang “it’s because she’s on the rag”, and accusatory statements including “you’re just lazy” and “it’s just an excuse to act like a bitch”.

The impact of these comments can be substantial. Nadya Okamoto, Founder and Executive Director of charity PERIOD, discusses the impact that period stigma can have on those who face it:

“Period stigma enforces these walls of shame and silence around menstruation that can cause menstruators to feel unsupported and often embarrassed, especially when free period products are not easily accessible in workplace restrooms. The lack of empathy and openness around periods also minimises and dismisses period pain, which is something very serious that needs to be listened to, respected, and supported.

“Companies and managers should treat periods as normal and natural. They should not be treated as a taboo topic in the workplace, they are part of being human! They should also provide menstrual hygiene products for all of their employees and should not tolerate comments like ‘they did X because of their period’”.

Suggesting that someone is only acting a certain way because of their menstrual cycle devalues their opinions and contributions and is a poor way of addressing an employee’s concerns. Similarly, suggesting that women need to “man up”, or handle their pain more effectively because other women don’t seem to suffer as much is unhelpful. Everybody is different, and different people will find their period triggers different conditions.

Overcoming the Stigma

Our research has shown that period stigma still exists in the UK, and it can have a significant impact on our workforce. But there are things managers, employers, and HR professionals can be doing to overcome the stigma of periods in their workplace. We’ve spoken to Nadya Okamoto, Founder and Executive Director of charity PERIOD, Matt Jones, Media and Online Relations Manager at Search Laboratory, and Carly Stanforth, HR and Office Manager at marketing agency Further, about what people can be doing to overcome the stigma.

Creating Space for Conversation

It can be hard to engage in a conversation about menstruation, without making people feel uncomfortable, regardless of whether they’re a menstruator. One way to encourage these conversations is to provide small visible signs that there is room for these discussions to happen. Equipping your workspace with adequate facilities for those on their period is a way of doing this. The installation of sanitary bins and the introduction of aids like heat pads and back supports can prompt this.

Another way of fostering an open and approachable environment in this area is the provision of free sanitary products. Currently, one in ten menstruators (10%) have access to free sanitary products in their workplaces. Carly Stanforth says on the issue “I have free sanitary products available to use in the toilets so no-one is ever caught short. Occasionally they have to inform me if the stash is running low, or they may thank me for restocking it. We have a first aid box with pain killers etc, and this can sometimes be an ice breaker for someone to volunteer that they are in pain due to the ‘time of the month’. We also have a hot water bottle available for staff if they need to relieve cramps, and I make sure I don’t conceal the tampons and pads from the view of the male employees. They’re just kept with the other office supplies!”

Letting people know you are open to conversation without forcing them to immediately take part can be a significant step in the right direction.

You can also try to introduce menstruation conversations to your workplace dialogue in an indirect way. Carly has introduced the topic as an occasional feature in her email updates. “It takes a team to tackle any kind of stigma, but office managers and HR managers can set an example by using other workplace wellness messaging as an opportunity to talk about periods. I’m often sending round updates to do with getting active, or charity and team-building events staff can take part in, and so it doesn’t feel jarring to also receive the odd email here and there about period positivity – which helps people to feel more comfortable in discussing periods at other times if they need to.”

Nadya Okamoto says that although these topics can be difficult to approach, “You just have to start. Start a conversation and be open to discussing periods with your employees and co-workers. Transparency needs to start with leadership so just start that conversation and create a safe space for people to be honest with each other. A really tangible way to show your support for people with periods in the office is to stock every restroom with tampons and pads.”

Training Staff

As with other health and wellness issues, training for staff, particularly managers, can be helpful for overcoming stigma. Currently, there seems to be a reluctance to initiate conversation around periods for fear of saying the wrong thing or making menstruators uncomfortable. Matt Jones says “I think that there could be more training offered for all managers with how to deal with situations like this, especially if people need time off due to being in pain, it’s important it’s approached in a sympathetic, understanding way and shouldn’t be judged by male or female managers, or their colleagues.”

Training around creating an open attitude to periods could be done by external speakers, or in a more informal manner. A recent US project has created a board game to get people talking about and understanding periods a bit more. Getting people involved with an activity like this could help break down barriers. To understand more about how managers can instigate these conversations and approach this issue, HR training can be useful. Consider encouraging staff to undertake qualifications such as the CIPD Level 5  to skill-up your workforce in this area.

Our survey results highlight that period stigma remains a very real thing in many workplaces, but there are small things you can do to let your employees know that they can be honest and transparent with you on the issue. By making the effort to provide facilities and engage in conversations around the topic you are letting employees know that you are supportive of them. By approaching the issue in this way, you are breaking down period stigma without forcing a menstruator into a conversation they don’t want to have with their colleagues.