Discussing your menstrual problems at the workplace is better for everyone, says German researcher and menstrual health worker Katharina Eggert.
– BY KATHARINA EGGERT –
Although women* regularly experience symptoms related to their menstruation, little attention is given to the way periods can affect them in their workplace. Women account for about half of the labour-force in Europe. However, periods aren’t openly discussed in the workplace and are sometimes even tabooed. This is worrisome for women who need help in managing their periods, because many of them feel too unwell to go to work but still feel the pressure to go.
Why is it so important to discuss your period problems at the workplace?
Although some women are lucky enough to feel no period-related symptoms, many experience complaints before or during their menstruation, which make them less able to concentrate or work productively. Researchers estimate that around 50% of women in their reproductive age experience pain during their menstruation and 20-40% suffer from premenstrual symptoms. Yet, studies have also shown that women who stay home from work when feeling sick during their period don’t feel like they can be open about it; some even make up other reasons of absence.
Often, women feel guilty about missing out on work and try to make up for the lost working day by overcompensating. Doing more than would be necessary and overworking, just because menstruation isn’t always seen as a legitimate reason of absence, leads to stress and a bad work-life balance. Unfortunately, stress is the first thing to influence the hormonal system, and can often make symptoms a lot worse. This could easily be prevented by making the discussion about periods at work more normal.
An aspect often neglected when it comes to how periods are tabooed at work, is that it also influences families. Women who have a poor work-life balance can easily feel overwhelmed with tasks related to their social and domestic surroundings. The lack of flexible working conditions during menstruation also forces many women to work part-time, although they want to work full-time, leading to a lower household income. Overall, menstrual health is one of the big factors of women’s overall health and can have an impact on many aspects of their lives, so why don’t we dare to speak about it?
What can be done to create a period friendly workplace?
First of all, it’s necessary to become educated about menstrual health and the way it can affect employees. If resources found online aren’t enough, it makes sense to get guidance from a professional advisor. A first step for employers is to actively encourage women to speak up if they have trouble to manage their work during their period. Next up: allow for more flexibility. Many women find it helpful to work from home or work less hours during their menstrual days. Some women would even wish to take the whole day off, with the possibility to (partly) make up for it later.
Most importantly, it has to be made clear that there will be no discrimination against anyone who is openly talking about their menstrual health. Ideally, this would also hold for employees with health conditions that aren’t related to menstruation, because menstrual health problems aren’t the only stigmatised health condition.
Another important message would be to offer period care products in the women’s bathrooms and to assign a quiet place where employees can take some time for themselves (especially in open offices). This already shows women that their basic period needs are acknowledged.
What can women do to manage their period at work?
Women can try to plan ahead and avoid important meetings or presentations on the first day of their period or when they expect to feel symptoms. Tracking the menstrual cycle is a powerful tool to do that and luckily, there are plenty of apps for this nowadays. To be more comfortable when going to work during their period, women should take it slow and allow themselves breaks whenever possible and ideally go for a little walk. If that’s not possible, they can go to a quiet place and stretch a bit, especially the lower abdomen because that relieves tension and cramps.
Although women generally feel more tired during their period, it’s better to avoid consuming too much caffeine. Relaxing teas like chamomile or ginger are better. Before resorting to painkillers, which can lead to brain fog, magnesium can be an easy fix for weaker period cramps. Another way to relieve pain is by using a hot water bottle; these also exist in mini sizes.
In general, women should tell their surroundings if they aren’t able to perform certain tasks that day and delegate them or work from home if possible. Overworking when experiencing menstrual symptoms requires a lot of energy and creates stress. This can have a negative effect on both hormonal balance and mental health. It’s important to keep in mind that women’s productivity isn’t always steady. The days around ovulation are usually the days during which women thrive at work and easily make up for lost productivity during menstruation.
How does this help your employer, too?
Employers also benefit from allowing their menstruating employees to be more flexible during their period. Acknowledging women’s needs regarding their periods can even be seen as a new workplace benefit. This has the potential to attract skilled female employees and to keep valuable employees. The latter is already a big cost saver, because training new employees takes long and is expensive.
Apart from that, employers make sure to keep their employees’ working productivity high. With small adjustments, women can incorporate their periods better in their work setting, which allows them to be more productive. Additionally, women who feel like their employer trusts them to work in the setting they prefer during their period are more committed and motivated.
How does this help society?
Finally, even society benefits from adjusted work settings for menstruating women. First of all, more women could work more hours if they want to, which contributes to the country’s economic growth. For a lot of women this also means being more financially independent and therefore less dependent on any kind of governmental financial aid. Most importantly, reducing the stress for women who have problems to function at work during their period is a crucial way of preventing illness. As a consequence, health-care utilisation costs are lower and more women become enabled to work.
Last but certainly not least, normalising the discussion about periods at the workplace is necessary to create equal employment opportunities for women. It has to be understood that menstruating women are neither less reliable nor performing worse, just differently! Men and women should be treated equally at the workplace, but that doesn’t mean they should function in the same way. Biological differences have to be acknowledged and embraced, because they allow for more diverse approaches and perspectives.
*not all women menstruate and not everyone who menstruates identifies as a woman
About the author:
Katharina Eggert is a freelance researcher focusing on the interrelation between (pre)menstrual health and work. She has a BSc in Economic Science and a MSc in Health Economics. Having been affected by PMS and cramps and not having been able to openly discuss this at her previous workplaces, Katharina started to research the impact of (pre)menstrual disorders on productivity and quality of life. For info or advice regarding menstrual health at the workplace, contact Katharina at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Instagram page.
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