Employment

8 in 10 women say stigma around periods has held them back in their career

Free period products, flexible working and additional breaks are the top three things employers can do to help people who menstruate manage their periods at work, according to new research from WaterAid.

Woman taking a menstrual cup out of the bag.

Menstrual cups are increasingly being used as an environmental replacement for tampons and pads. Image: COROIMAGE/Getty

Stress and fear around periods “still dominate” the lives of working women, new research has found, as employers are urged to make workplaces more accommodating for people who menstruate. 

A staggering 85% of working women said they experience stress or anxiety when managing their periods at work, according to new research from international charity WaterAid, while eight in ten said their career has been held back to some extent by attitudes to periods.

One in five said they felt unable to take time off to deal with the mental and physical effects of having a period, and nearly two thirds felt embarrassed to talk about their period at work.

Georgia Hales, a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, described her experiences of having “depression-like symptoms” in the days before her period. 

“I would put in the system that I’m generally ill, however I feel like it is something I should be able to talk about…. And I would feel stigma around taking time off for this,” she told The Big Issue. 

She described how the mental effects of menstruation continue to be difficult to talk about at work, in a similar way to the stigma faced by people with mental health disorders. 

Hales, who is researching menstrual health and hygiene in refugee camps, said that UK employers shouldn’t take for granted that their facilities are suitable for people who menstruate. 

“There is this negative connotation of periods as dirty and disgusting, but there’s also this notion that if you’re a person that doesn’t menstruate then it’s not your responsibility to consider it.

“We’re becoming more environmentally friendly as a country, so more people are using menstrual cups, which are reusable and should be rinsed between uses. But if the toilet facilities in our workplaces don’t have private sinks, this could be leading people to have infections, and then becoming ill and needing to take time off work.”

Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free to everyone in 2021, making sure that anyone who can’t afford tampons or pads, or has been caught short, can get products free of charge. 

Yet almost a third of working women in the UK said they have had to use makeshift materials such as toilet paper or fabric to manage their periods at work. Shame around periods, despite being a normal bodily function, means that half of those surveyed said they hid their period products on their way to the bathroom at work to avoid feeling embarrassed.

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WaterAid surveyed 2,000 British women and people who menstruate who work on site, such as in an office, warehouse or shop, finding that free period products, flexible working and additional breaks were the top things they felt employers could do to help them manage their periods.  

“Providing period products is a minimum baseline and should be offered by all workplaces ,” Rachel Grocott, CEO of period poverty charity Bloody Good Period, told The Big Issue, citing the near universal provision of soap and toilet paper in office toilets. 

“But more than that, bloody good employers also develop their culture and communications around periods, making sure that staff and managers know about periods and menstrual and menopausal health needs, and actively engage in inclusive, shame-free conversations about periods,” she continued. 

In a European first, Spain recently passed legislation that gave people who menstruate the right to take paid leave when they are experiencing disabling periods, which can cause severe cramps, fatigue, and conditions such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) that can cause severe mood changes. 

“People tend not to progress or stay in organisations they don’t feel supported by,” Francesca Steyn, director of fertility and women’s health at digital-health company Peppy, told The Big Issue.  

“A distinct lack of policies and measures in place to support women with menstrual health inevitably leads to issues around productivity and causes staffing attrition as people are forced to take time off work or leave work.” 

“This is clearly bad for business,” she added.

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