Thea O’Connor is a workplace wellbeing advisor, Founder of Menopause@Work a training program for workplaces managers, as well as facilitator of The Change, a confidential program to support women who are working through menopause.
The case for accommodating women’s menstrual cycle at work
This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.
While women’s monthly cycle is key to the survival of the human species, it’s an experience that is often shrouded by silence and shame. We can do better and workplaces can help lead the way.
Over the last few years year, the words ‘menopause’ and ‘menstruation’ have started to be uttered in workplaces – often in hushed tones - in relation to health and wellbeing, diversity and inclusion and gender equality.
More articles are appearing in mainstream and professional publications stating that menopause and menstruation have been a taboo topic in the workplace for too long and it’s time to bring them into the open. A few workplaces are doing so in Australia, but the majority are not.
In an era where workplace diversity and inclusion agendas include age, disability, gender identity and even our sexuality, why not also include these natural life cycles that half of the population experiences, and that can affect workplace performance?
Fear is usually the reason why not. Fear that it will cause too much discomfort naming such personal matters, fear that any benefits will be abused or fear that it will make things worse for women by re-enforcing negative stereotypes of women being the weaker sex. Such concerns are not new.
Workplaces can be cognisant of these concerns yet still prioritise creating a culture that genuine cares for real human beings. All humans inhabit a body that has an internal ‘operating system’ imprinted with daily, monthly and life-stage rhythms. In women, these rhythms are more obvious in the case of the monthly menstrual cycle and the grand cycle of our reproductive life that menopause marks the end of. If we want to elicit the best in people, it only makes sense to care for the human body according to its innate design.
Instead we have a situation where the cultural stigma around menstruation and menopause leads women to try and hide what is happening in their bodies, especially when at work, and to push on despite the pain and discomfort that can accompany women’s periods as well as menopause, according to a survey of 3,000 women conducted by the Victorian Women’s Trust in 2013. My own confidential interview series with women working through menopause found similar themes (report here).
As one survey participant said of menstruation, “I was taught to hide it and never show weakness.”
This kind of conditioned cover-up prevents women from asking for simple and practical supports at work that can make a world of difference to their wellbeing and their productivity.
Left unchallenged, negative attitudes to the natural function of women’s bodies, can also influence people’s perceptions of women’s abilities. A study investigating attitudes towards menstrual status found that when a woman accidentally dropped a tampon out of her handbag, she was considered less competent and less likeable than a woman who accidentally dropped a clip.
Workplaces can play a key role in shifting attitudes, simply by acknowledging the cycling female body as a natural, and rather amazing, fact of life.
Workplaces that also accommodate the female body through menstrual and menopause wellbeing programs, training, policies and simple adjustments can expect significant business benefits. These include improved employee health, productivity and retention of female talent.
Improved Productivity & Wellbeing.
Small changes to the workplace environment can have a positive impact on menopausal women’s menopausal symptoms and ability to work, according to a study from Monash University Business School and Yale University. These changes include temperature control, a supportive manager and greater autonomy – measures that all staff will benefit from. Menstrual flexibly, which grants women more time to rest when energy levels are low during menstruation, and then to compensate by working more when their energy levels are higher, typically mid-cycle, results in fewer symptoms the following month, according to the anecdotal research of Dr Lara Owens who conducted her PhD on menstruation in organizational contexts and is the author of ‘Her Blood is Gold’.
When Owens trialled a menstrual flexibility policy at Coexist, a small social enterprise in the UK in 2016 and 2017, she found that while there was a large variation in women’s needs regarding menstruation at work, these individual differences didn’t appear to influence the participants' solidarity with other staff. Male employees expressed no resentment and said that it gave them more permission to also adjust their own working day to their bodies when needed.
Paving the way for more women to progress into senior leadership roles.
Organisations with more women at the top do better financially than those with fewer women in senior leadership, so it is in a workplace’s interests to remove or minimise any of the many barriers to advancing women into senior roles. While we don’t know the exact degree to which menstrual or menopausal health challenges interfere with women’s career progression, a survey of menopausal working women conducted earlier this year, involving 700 women found that of those who were going through menopause 45% considered retiring or taking a break from work. Four percent of working aged women actually do quit their jobs due to menopause, according to a 2019 survey of 1,000 working-aged women conducted by BUPA UK. It’s the silence, not just the symptoms, that makes work untenable for some.
The last 18 months have demonstrated just how much workplaces can change to accommodate the real lives of workers. Increased flexibility and transparency about what is happening in employees’ personal lives have been hallmarks of work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normalising conversations about menstruation and menopause in the workplace and treating it like we would any other life-stage or health condition, is another important step towards re-humanising our work ethic. As the title of the Victorian Women’s Trust research declares - it’s about bloody time!
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