Periods at work: The pandemic may have provided respite, but did it inspire change?

‘The worst times were when I was in court,’ says Kate Young, recalling her former job as a solicitor.

‘You can’t ask for a comfort break, so I often found myself praying that I’d get through a hearing without leakage.’

40-year-old Kate is describing the impact periods have had on her working life – and how, like many women across the UK, despite all the disadvantages lockdown has brought, one positive is that it’s provided respite in terms of menstruating while at work.

‘I’ve suffered from horrendously heavy periods for years,’ she explains. ‘Some days I’d struggle with horrific cramps and really heavy flow. But I never took time off as I felt I had to ‘power’ through.

‘Although my periods have been just as bad in lockdown, the nice thing is I’ve been able to manage my time and personal space so much better.’

There’s no doubt that has there been a shake up in archaic attitudes towards periods over the last decade, with increasingly authentic period product advertising, Scotland becoming the first country in the world to offer free sanitary products for all, and even a male MPs getting comfortable saying the word ‘tampon’ at the dispatch box recently.

Yet, sweeping mundane conversations around period health under the office rug is staggeringly prevalent, as a 2019 survey revealed 32 per cent of male staff deemed period chat at work ‘inappropriate’.

Meanwhile, for many, there’s still an unspoken undercurrent of secrecy and stigma in the workplace around menstruation even though 46.8 per cent of the UK labour force is recorded female.

Irrespective of disruptive menstrual symptoms, most people on their periods still go out of their way to hide their cycle to save workplace embarrassment — whether slipping a tampon up the sleeve going to the toilet or pretending it’s just a headache when asking around the office for painkillers.

The pressure of  presenteeism is also an issue, with a 2019 study from the Netherlands, which was published in the British Medical Journal, revealing that almost nine days of productivity were lost each year as Dutch women aged 15-45 showed up at work while unwell on their periods. 

With menstruation often going well beyond mild twinges and dips in mood-impacting hormone levels, people can also suffer days of symptoms (dysmenorrhoea, one of the most common gynaecological conditions) which cause nausea, dizziness, bloating, diarrhoea, headaches, and fatigue. Not to mention those who grapple with iron deficiency anaemia, polycystic ovary syndrome, multiple periods in a month, and menopause too.

However, thanks to the the pandemic shining a spotlight on old school branches of corporate culture and lockdown waking UK companies up to the future of flexible hours, it has also given women who suffer from debilitating periods the opportunity to reassess their work/menstruation balance.

Kate says that lockdown highlighted how much she persevered in her job when she was on her period (Picture: F8Photography)

Kate explains that after leaving her law career, she founded the Safeguarding Association, training local authorities around the country. 

‘It was different circumstances but I still suffered very similar issues whenever I got my period,’ she says. ‘The pain is one thing, the heaviness of my flow is quite another, and that was always what I worried about. 

‘But then when we went into lockdown last year and I was forced to do my job from home it highlighted to me how much I persevered when all I wanted to do was curl up, take ibuprofen (or something stronger) and let my body do what it was doing.’

However, now that lockdown is slowly lifting and employees are heading back to their workplaces, Kate’s anxiety is rising again.

‘There will be a time when I need to go into an organisation, which would be fine if I could be certain when my period would happen, but it’s not so regular that I can do this,’ she says.

‘The apprehension about being out and about in a situation I can’t control, really does worry me. I’d forgotten how much anxiety this caused until I realised lockdown was easing and I’d need to start travelling again.’

UK charity Bloody Good Period (BGP) has released a report exploring menstrual inequality at work in conjunction with a new employer education programme set to be launched later this year, called Bloody Good Employers.

The data BGP collected over the past year highlights the necessity for greater proactively at leadership level to disrupt the current culture of menstruation shame at work. 

For example, neary 90% of those who took part in the charity’s ‘Have Your Bloody Say’ survey experienced anxiety or stress at work due to their period and a quarter of respondents felt their career progression had taken a hit due to time off because of menstrual issues. 

Schemes such as Bloody Good Employers aim to help those in charge contribute to the discussion around periods and elevating workplace menstrual support to employees.

According to a survey by Bloody Good Period, almost nine out of 10 respondents experienced anxiety or stress at work due to their period (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

‘We’re not saying that everyone suddenly has to start talking about periods at work,’ explains Joe Gray, BGP’s employer initiative lead. ‘But what we want to do is give employers the tools to have those conversations. We know that lots of places want to get on board, but don’t know how to, which is where we come in.

‘We’re currently trying to come out of a pandemic, which has reshaped our work culture and how we respect on another and build compassion, so it really does feel like, if we can’t start talking about this now, when can we?

The last 15 months have seen many of us succesfully work flexibly from home, so we should give people that support back and the trust they deserve.

‘Anxiety is already rife and periods at work certainly shouldn’t be adding to that. There has to be a more human-centred approach, with staff wellbeing at heart.’

Battling undiagnosed endometriosis throughout the majority of her working life, left Sam Jones with no choice but to call in sick on occasion. However, her chronic pain led to a note issued by her company’s HR department five years ago that allowed her to work from home a few days a month.

‘I had a manager that specifically looked out for me and said he’d speak to the human resources team to get something written up,’ she recalls. ‘That way, whenever I have a new manager I can always advise them with HR and it will nip any problems in the bud immediately.’

Talking about how her periods affect her, Sam, explains, ‘I would say the first three days of my cycle is quite extreme pain and a very heavy flow as well. I often had to call in sick.’

However, until 2016, not all her bosses were quite so understanding. 

‘One did try and discuss me not being paid so I can just be at home and not work,’ she says. ‘I think he didn’t like me working from home and some days not doing as much.  He suggested we speak to HR, as we have a flexible working policy, so I wouldn’t get paid for two days of the month.

Could menstrual leave schemes be the answer? (Picture: Getty Images)

‘But it was such a ridiculous notion because sometimes my period might start on a Friday afternoon, then it’s over the weekend.  At one point last year, I had three periods back to back where the worst was all over the weekend so it didn’t affect my going into the office at all – and that was a lucky run!’

Sam admits that at the time she felt put on the spot and didn’t know how to respond, but the next day she spoke to her boss about it.

‘I told him I didn’t want to lose out on pay during that time,’ she recalls. ‘It’s very rare I’ve ever had to ask someone to do work for me because of my period. In my job I don’t have to react immediately and most tasks I could handle if I’m having a bad patch normally a couple of hours later. I can catch up on what I’ve missed and then go rest again.’

Although she now has a far more understanding manager, Sam admits that working from home during the pandemic has made things even easier for her. 

‘In terms of then [pre-pandemic] I would work from home for a couple of days, but I would always feel very conscious about that and with my colleagues around me,’ she says. ‘They’d ask if I was OK and I didn’t really want to tell everyone I was having period problems.

‘I knew I was fortunate to be able to work from home, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. Now, I can work flexibly around my period and no one has to know. Some days I just need to lie down for a couple of hours with a hot water bottle, knowing I will catch up on the work later.

‘I don’t think I’ll never not feel guilty about it, but it’s certainly easier while working from home.’

With one out of 10 UK women of reproductive age enduring endometriosis and the inflammatory disease, it costs the economy £8.2billion a year in treatment, work loss, and healthcare expenditure. So what else can be done to tackle this, on top of flexible working? 

Hattie says it helps working in an office that is predominately female (Picture: supplied)

According to Hattie Drinkwater, an account executive who suffers from painful periods, the key is communication.  

As someone who works in a predominantly female office, Hattie says it helps that she can be quite uninhibited.

 ‘It lends to more a comfortable working environment in general which in turn makes everything more productive,’ she explains. 

‘The fact I can go in and say: “Hey my period is absolutely awful, do you mind if I take 10 minutes”, means I’m more likely to get work done rather than suffering in silence. 

‘I also think a lot of issues with periods, well, mine anyway, is how down they get me, and whenever people feel low it just helps to be able to talk about it.’

Hattie says her cycle leaves her with really bad stomach pains and nausea. She often uses a hot water bottle to try and alleviate the pain.

‘If you don’t work in an office, it’s almost impossible to take time out’

Freelance fashion stylist Amy Charuy-Hughes can still recollect one of her worst periods at work. 

“I was working on the floor in a fashion store at the time and I had to wear their clothes as my ‘uniform’,’ she explains. ‘But as I was really petite, I had to double up, wearing leggings underneath my jeans. 

‘As I was on my period, I had also put a pad on, but the tightness of the layers made it really chafe against my skin to the point it blistered.’

Picture of Amy Charuy-Hughes in a garden

As awful as it was, Amy admits that she learned to suffer in silence – something she says she still often does working as she works as a freelancer.  

‘You are booked to do a job and they are still a client, so no matter how nice they are you can’t help but feel you’re jeopardising your chances of working with them again if you make a big deal of not feeling well,’ she says. 

“Just before the first lockdown, I started my period working on a shoot. I was working with a model and expected to stand up all day, but it was so hard and I could barely function. I just wanted to sit down but I knew I had to just get on with it.’

Now, as she’s able to go out and about more to work, Amy knows she still doesn’t have the option of relying on a good boss look out for her welfare. Even so, she feels that she’s reached a point where she’d stand up for herself if needs me.

‘I’d like to think it’s got to the point where I can tell a client that I need to go home,’ she admits. ‘I think we should be able to make that decision for ourselves as opposed to waiting for someone to make that call for you.’

‘I have to have one with me at all times,’ she says. ‘My periods are quite heavy as well, so I do find that I’m having to go to the loo a lot to change. But knowing that my colleagues don’t take any notice or judge me for it, makes a huge difference to my working day.’ 

Company boss Ida Tin allows her team the option of working from home on bad period days and supplies free hygiene products as a standard. As forward-thinking as that sounds, it’s not totally unexpected given that Ida is the co-founder of a cycle-tracking app.

‘During Covid-19 we’ve seen how people have worked from home with a lot of flexibility, and they have stayed just as motivated and productive,’ she explains.

As the CEO of Clue, Ida says her employees are trusted to work in tune with their body, which is key for a thriving high-performance environment instead of a culture where things, such as periods, are concealed.

Although this initiative is still fairly unique in the UK, such a solution to support those navigating dreadful periods while at work is already implemented in countries like Zambia, South Korea, and Japan, under ‘menstrual leave’ schemes. Paid or unpaid, the fairness is a contentious approach, with some arguing employees currently don’t receive the same treatment with long term conditions such as asthma or depression, while others fear it could have a negative impact on small businesses. 

Ida Tin allows her employees the option of working from home on bad period days (Picture: Franz Gruenewald)

Plus, although period-specific employee welfare policy is a giant leap in the right direction in empowering women to listen to what their cycle is telling them, it is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach to those menstruating where their occupation restricts a level of adaptability. 

Joe Gray from Bloody Good Period adds that support also needs to go beyond ‘convential’ workspaces such as offices.

‘It shouldn’t be difficult for those places to look after staff, however it can get more tricky when we go into the reams of shift or freelance work, or those predominately on their feet,’ he explains. ‘We’ve spoken to people with all sorts of jobs, such as working in archaeology and construction services, and it still all comes down to staff wellbeing.

‘It’s about making sure that employees – whether on contracts or not – feel supported. So for workers on site, it might be having access to clean toilets and appropriate facilities.

‘At the end of the day, not feeling cared for can have a huge impact of an employees’ mental health, which is why we need better practices that are effective in understanding the needs of the individual. Ultimately, if you look after your staff, you will get more out of them.

‘So, while there is a clear business case for this, fundamentally it’s a morale one. We need to get better at leaning in and supporting those experiencing menstruating at work.’

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