Menstrual health in the workplace: What steps can employers take to address the stigma?
Market Insight 12 July 2023 12 July 2023
UK & Europe
Earlier this year the Spanish parliament announced the introduction of paid menstrual leave, leading to renewed calls from UK charities to bring in similar rights here in the UK. While this appears unlikely, women’s reproductive health in the workplace (including menopause) is the subject of increased focus. Most recently, the BSI has published new guidance to help employers tackle these issues.
In this article we consider the steps employers can take to support employees who suffer from the pain of menstruation and to address the stigma around menstrual health.
What is the problem?
Almost a quarter of women who currently menstruate say they get period pains that affect their ability to work every or most times they get their period.1 When ongoing symptoms are severe, the cause is often because of an underlying issue such as fibroids, adenomyosis or endometriosis. Unfortunately, the cultural taboo around menstrual health is still prevalent in many workplaces. Studies have shown that often a culture of ‘non-disclosure’ exists, with 25% of employees feeling unable to talk openly about periods at work and 27% feeling unsupported by their employer. 89% of employees also report experiencing anxiety or stress in the workplace due to their period, highlighting the wider impact and burden on mental health.2
A lack of workplace period policies could also be costing businesses over £6 billion per year, as menstrual symptoms cause women to lose on average 8.4 days each year due to lower productivity in the workplace.3
What legal entitlements do employees currently have in the UK?
Currently, there is no specific right under UK employment law to paid leave for those who suffer from menstrual pain or other related health issues. Employees must therefore take sick leave if they need time off work for menstrual pain. But as Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is only paid on the fourth consecutive day of absence, shorter periods of absence will be unpaid unless their employer offers enhanced contractual sick pay. For those workers who simply cannot work due to debilitating pain, this could result in financial hardship.
Employees have reported feeling unable to take time off out of fear of appearing incapable or unreliable, and choosing to conceal the real reason for taking time off sick due to period pain.4 25% of employees have also reported feeling that time they have had to take off due to menstrual health issues has impacted their career progression.5
What steps can employers take?
As employers drive for a more inclusive workplace culture, they may want to consider the steps they could take to support employees and address the taboo around menstrual health.
Employers may consider implementing a paid menstrual leave policy – though the solution may not be so simplistic. Critics suggest such policies may further hinder gender inequality, since employees who menstruate would be treated differently to those who don’t. Such policies are also meaningless if employees do not feel it is culturally acceptable to use them and are further stigmatised for doing so. Employers may therefore instead focus their efforts on improving communications, culture and policy around menstrual health.
Last month the BSI (the UK National Standards Body), published guidance: the British Standard BS 30416, Menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace. The guidance sets out practical recommendations for workplace adjustments, as well as strategies to help organisations meet the needs of employees experiencing menopause or menstruation.
Steps you may wish to consider include:
- Review sickness and absence policies more generally to include wording around menstrual health, and consider whether policies which penalise regular absence require amendment to ensure those taking time off due to menstrual health issues are not unfairly disadvantaged. The BSI guidance also suggests reviewing other relevant policies such as well-being, D&I, performance management and flexible working to consider menstruation and menopause.
- Ensure policies are effectively communicated to everyone in the organisation.
- Consider flexible and hybrid working models. Not all employees will need to take time off when experiencing menstrual pain and instead may prefer the option to work flexibly or other reasonable adjustments to their working pattern. For example, Intimina UK offers ‘Menstrual Care Days’ which take into account that employees may have varying levels of productivity during this time. Employees are also able to start work later and arrange meetings flexibly if required due to menstrual symptoms.
- Ensure employees are able to take regular rest breaks if required and time off for medical appointments.
- Audit the workplace environment to check if there are easily accessible facilities such as toilets or discrete changing rooms, or quiet recovery spaces. Consider whether it is necessary to provide comfort adjustments such as access to individual cooling or heating, and opportunities for sitting or stretching.
- Provide easy and free access to sanitary products. High street retailer Wickes announced in 2022 that it would be providing period products to all staff, as well as advising staff on how they can be more period positive.
- Improve communications around menstrual health in the workplace and encourage open discussions. When asked what employers could do to provide more support, 63% of respondents said to normalise conversations around menstrual health and 59% said to provide more information.6
- Ensure that line/HR managers are suitably trained and receive resources to understand the impact of menstrual health and how to support staff.
- Consider whether as a matter of workplace culture, there is a general awareness of menstrual health and whether employees are given opportunities for open conversations or to request support. As the BSI guidance identifies, this may include the introduction of menstruation advocates, regular confidential check-ins with employees and setting up informal support groups to discuss concerns or plan wellbeing activities.
There are clear advantages to employers for providing support in this area. If employees feel supported and valued then productivity, loyalty and engagement amongst the workforce is likely to improve and staff retention rates increase. The workplace will also appear attractive to prospective talent, as more individuals now value such policies when researching prospective employers.
Employers should also be mindful of legal risks – although the question of whether conditions relating to menstruation can amount to a disability has not yet been considered by the Tribunal, case law around when menopause symptoms may amount to a disability in a discrimination claim is growing. Legal protection is likely to arise as a result of protection from discrimination in relation to sex, age or disability. Such issues are likely to come before the Tribunal in the not too distant future, and employers should consider discrimination risks and whether reasonable adjustments are required.
If your organisation is considering introducing a menstrual leave policy or would like advice on how to support employees, our team is experienced in advising clients on women’s health issues. We can provide training on workplace culture, discrimination and unconscious bias. Please do get in touch to find out more.