Periods at work: time to end the taboo

Mar 11, 2020

5 mins

Periods at work: time to end the taboo
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

From menstrual leave to period positivity, this important aspect of women’s health has become a topic of debate in the UK. While it’s no longer such a conversational no-no, it’s not likely to dominate water-cooler conversations any time soon. But has our dear “Auntie Flo” always been cursed by historical stigma? That depends on who you ask. A few hundred years ago, Native American tribes, such as the Navajo, invited menstruating women to lead the group because their periods gave them spiritual powers. So why don’t more cultures treat women’s periods with this kind of respect?

It’s time to remove the stigma

Women make up half of the world’s population and in many countries they have professional lives. For many women, periods aren’t just a bit of a nuisance. It’s common to experience significant blood loss, persistent cramps and even severe pelvic pain for those who have endometriosis.

Some jobs are flexible. Others require a degree of physical activity or prolonged standing that can quickly turn a female employee’s working life into a nightmare.
So what are some ways of dealing with the “monthly visitor” in the workplace? Should it be discussed openly? When will the taboo lift to the point where a woman can lie down in the recovery position without freaking out their colleagues?

To help us to answer some of these questions, we spoke to Fanny Abes, founder of Fempo, a startup selling menstrual pants. The idea for the business came after Abes and her partner Claudette decided to ask women their true feelings about menstruation. Soon after posting a 10-question survey on Facebook, they realised they’d touched a nerve. Abes said, “We received 3,000 responses in two days and many messages of support from women who thanked us for finally showing interest in how they perceived the subject.” A year later, they launched the prototype for their menstrual pants, which they later improved with feedback from customers. In France, where their company is located, they already have 30,000 users. Here are some tips from Abes on how to become more period positive.

1. Back to basics

Considering how taboo periods have been in the past, coming to terms with menstruation is a necessary first step. According to Abes, “Periods can be seen in a different light. Once a month, you’re forced to slow down a bit. While it has an impact on your work, it also gets you listening to your body and your needs.” Avoid scheduling too many meetings during your “time of the month”. Or if that’s not an option, organise your schedule so you can go home earlier. Thinking ahead means your period will be less likely to affect your job performance and cause undue stress.

2. Make concessions for—and make the most of—hormonal shifts

At Fempo, nothing is off limits. The two partners share a menstrual calendar so that when one partner is having her period, the other can take on extra work and offer relief. It’s not just about reducing stress and workload, however. Looking at periods differently also gives them the chance to plan tasks around powerful hormonal shifts. Abes said, “I know I’m more creative when I’m ovulating. Whenever possible, I use that time of month to work on things that require a creative flair!”

3. Bring men into the fold

“Men may not understand, but we can explain it to them,” Abes said. She suggests talking about it openly with the men in your immediate family and group of friends. Every male manager and colleague may also be a brother, father or friend of a woman who can help him understand.

And in the workplace, specifically?

Most women experience periods that don’t have a huge impact on their work. If your period does, however, you need to find a comfortable solution. What’s the best way to deal with everyday situations when you’re working?

1. Speak to your boss and colleagues

Periods should not be a taboo subject in today’s workplace. That said, be mindful of your audience and avoid speaking too bluntly, to protect the sensitivity of your colleagues. Essentially, how much you share—and with whom—will be your decision and yours alone.

Legally, however, you are under no obligation to detail the reasons why you are uncomfortable or in pain. In extreme cases, take time off and get a note from your doctor.

2. Meetings and seminars

Suffering in silence is never an option. Severe pain can interfere with your concentration or productivity and make you less effective. Be honest with your boss, taking him or her aside to speak in private if you feel your discomfort is not manageable. If your period pain occurs regularly, consider talking to your boss about ways your schedule could be adapted to ensure your work is not affected. Being proactive in this case will avoid problems in the future.

3. Accidents happen

Why is it just when you are wearing a lovely pair of white trousers that the “red tide” appears out of nowhere? Ouch. There are several solutions: ignore the fashion police and tie a jumper or shirt around your waist; borrow a colleague’s gym leggings; or face the situation head on and explain to your boss that you need to rush home and change.

4. Know your rights

Some women experience mood fluctuations or find their behaviour changes during periods. That does not justify sexist comments in the workplace. If you overhear Gavin and Michael saying something like, ”What’s up with her today? She must be on the rag!” that is not okay. Sexism and misogyny no longer have any place in the office. Check out our survival kit for everyday sexism to hone your approach.

And what about menstrual leave?

It’s a hot topic in the UK, with many wondering if women should be legally entitled to two days of paid leave per month. But is menstrual leave progressive or regressive? While some see it as progress and as offering physical relief for extreme cases, others fear it will lead to prejudice as it will be seen as a “female weakness” or may increase discrimination in recruitment. As Abes said, “Many women could use this, especially if they are suffering or become ill from the pain. But you shouldn’t be forced to do it when you don’t need to. I know I’m a bit less efficient, but I can still work.”

Indeed, while women in Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and South Korea are legally entitled to menstrual leave, many opt not to take the days. The reasons for this are complex and specific to each culture. In Japan, for example, menstrual leave was introduced in 1947, but it’s seldom used. First of all, some worry it is a show of weakness specific to one gender. More importantly, menstrual leave in Japan is unpaid. For that reason, women are reluctant to use it and rely on regular sick days instead, which are paid. Finally, workload is another factor: some Japanese women prefer to work through their pain, so they don’t fall behind.

One alternative, especially for women in the UK where the practice is increasingly popular, might be telecommuting. Already introduced by some companies, working from home lets men and women alike schedule their work without having to justify themselves to everyone around the office. For women with menstrual pain, it offers the chance to work in a more comfortable environment too.

Talking about women’s health at work has a long way to go. But the founders of Fempo are sure that things are headed in the right direction: “We’re already seeing dads buying our menstrual pants for their wives or daughters!” It seems more and more likely that talking about “that time of the month” will become accepted in offices after all.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Illustration by Marcel Singe for Welcome To The Jungle

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