How can we normalise conversations about menstrual cycles at work?

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Jan 16, 2023

How can we normalise conversations about menstrual cycles at work?

We chat to Hannah Samano, founder of the UK’s first cycle-care platform Unfabled to find out what employers can do to destigmatise period-talk

Those of us who suffer with painful periods will likely know how it feels to try and hide this at work. Smiling through gritted teeth during meetings when all you want to do is lie down, taking a concoction of painkillers to get you through another hour at your desk, lying to colleagues and blaming a headache for your unusual quietness.

Over the years, things have improved in some workplaces, with both employees and employers alike more open to discussing the impact of menstrual cycles and accepting that staff may have different needs throughout the month. In the past, I would push through pain and work when my cramps got bad, but now I either take a break or take a sick day. Working from home has also made a big difference. Being able to retreat to the sofa in your pyjamas at certain points during your cycle definitely has its perks.

But of course, pain isn’t the only effect of periods. For some, mental health is affected and it’s imperative that more workplaces acknowledge this and take conversations further.

Here we speak to founder of cycle-care platform Unfabled, Hannah Samano, to find out what both employers and staff can do.

Hannah Samano - founder of Unfabled

The impact that the menstrual cycle can have on our mental wellbeing is often underestimated but, by contrast, it is far from being solely physiological. Most people who menstruate will experience some symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including cramping, mood swings, headaches, stress and anxiety. In fact, a recent study from Unfabled found that 92% of people experience difficult symptoms in relation to their menstrual cycle.

Some individuals can also develop more severe symptoms. Between 5 and 8% of women globally also suffer from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD); an incredibly severe form of premenstrual syndrome which causes both emotional and physical symptoms and in some cases can, concerningly, result in suicidal thoughts.

These symptoms can in turn make work incredibly difficult with people reporting difficulty in concentrating, self-doubt, paranoia, fatigue, tearfulness, a heightened sensitivity to the environment and people, outbursts, and finding social interaction particularly difficult.

Experiencing these symptoms will of course have a direct impact on how an individual carries out day to day activities and, as such, more and more organisations are offering menstrual leave to their employees.

It is absolutely vital that we talk about the impact of our cycle within the workplace, normalise conversations and work to remove any stigma around the associated symptoms.

What sort of menstrual-care policies would you like to see more widely introduced?

Protection policies and policies focusing on the language surrounding periods would be incredibly beneficial for the inclusion of trans men who still have periods and non-binary people who have periods.

Do you have any tips for making conversations about menstruation less taboo in the workplace?

Ultimately, these conversations really need to be led with a top-down approach. I do believe that the management, first and foremost, has an innate responsibility to ensure that these conversations are taking place within the workplace and that the company is helping people who have periods feel supported with regards to all aspects of their health.

It’s imperative that the management creates a safe space in which each employee knows that they’re going to be able to talk about any challenges regarding all areas of their health - from mental health through to the physical symptoms associated with menstruation. Leadership teams are often predominately male, so, it is imperative that they educate themselves on menstrual health - including menopausal and perimenopausal health - so that they’re fully equipped to lead teams with women and people with periods within them.

It’s incredibly concerning when people with periods find themselves lying about their reasons for being sick as opposed to feeling empowered to share the truth as to why they are suffering. But, until the management breaks down this stigma and approaches these conversations with their team, it is incredibly challenging to expect people to battle through this stigma that we know exists.

Another way in which companies can help to ensure that menstruation becomes less taboo is by working with charities that actively support period poverty. When companies work with charities that support this issue (such as Bloody Good Period), this can really help to break down barriers when it comes to awareness and stigma.

Bloody Good Employers is also incredibly beneficial. The group offers support and education for employers who are committed to promoting equality, diversity and the rights of all workers to be treated fairly. Their primary objective is to go into workplaces and help them to build a better workplace and culture surrounding menstrual health.

What can those of us with menstrual cycles do to advocate for ourselves in the workplace?

To advocate for ourselves in the workplace, we need to really prioritise self-care. Taking the time to slow down and listen to what your body is saying to you, not overworking or over-scheduling your diary during this time if we’re not feeling our best can significantly aid our mental health and wellbeing. Speaking to other colleagues and management within the workplace can help us to feel safe and supported as opposed to feeling isolated, too.

Take the brave step to be open with our managers about when we are struggling due to our menstrual cycle. If your period affects your ability to work then your manager should know that so they can be supportive. Also, please see a doctor if your menstrual cycle affects your ability to perform day to day tasks.

If your menstrual cycle is affecting your mental health and you want support, you can find a therapist at Counselling Directory.

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