Organisations have made great progress on creating menopause-friendly workplaces. In 2019, when CIPD launched its Manifesto for menopause at work, just 10% of organisations had a framework to support people through menopause transition. In 2023, that figure has risen to 46%. We need to build on that momentum to reach 100%, but also need to mirror that progress to create supportive cultures for menstruation and menstrual health.
Despite menstruation being a normal part of life, and the prevalence of menstrual health challenges, these issues are often shrouded in stigma and silence in the workplace. Only 18% of organisations include support to a large or moderate extent for menstrual health in their wellbeing activity, according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and wellbeing at work 2023 report. More encouragingly, 19% say their organisation plans to introduce a policy on menstrual health while over a third (35%) encourage an open and supportive climate where employees are able to talk about menstrual issues.
We need to build on these seeds of change and encourage people professionals and employers to break the taboo around periods and provide support.
Serious gap in workplace support for menstrual health
In November 2023, the CIPD published the results of a survey of over 2,000 women, aged 18-60, who currently or have previously menstruated while in employment. The aim of the research is to understand employees’ experiences of menstruation and what support can be most helpful at work.
Our findings showed that 79% have experienced menstruation symptoms. The most common symptoms include abdominal cramps (60%), feeling irritable (52%), fatigue (49%), bloating (49%) and low mood (47%), but there were a wide range of symptoms experienced. Further, 15% had a menstrual health condition like endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or fibroids.
Not surprisingly, more than two-thirds of employees (69%) have experienced a negative impact at work due to menstruation symptoms. This rises to 81% where people have a diagnosed menstrual condition. Employees with menstrual symptoms are also significantly more likely to report a negative impact if they have a disability – 80%, compared with 66% who don’t have a disability.
More than one in ten (12%) of respondents say their menstrual symptoms have had a negative impact on their career progression.
And yet, only 12% of our survey respondents say their organisation provides support for menstruation and menstrual health. This gap in support needs to close. Part of this involves creating cultures where women and others with menstrual health symptoms can feel safe to discuss their health issues.
The provision currently on offer, although limited, chimes to some extent with the support that our respondents would find most helpful, with free period products, paid sick leave and paid time off for medical appointments all rated in the top five. However, the other two types of support that would be most valued are planned flexible working and more breaks when needed and fewer than one in ten employees have had access to either.
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We asked how often, if at all, employees had been unable to go to work because of menstruation symptoms. More than half (53%) had been unable to at some point and, for a small minority (4%) this was the case every month.
When asked if they had told their manager that the reason for not being able to go into work was because of their menstrual cycle, around half of respondents (49%) said they never tell their manager it’s related to their menstrual cycle. When asked why not, the main reason was that they felt the problem would be trivialised (45%), followed closely by feeling embarrassed (43%).
So clearly more needs to be done to create an open and supportive culture around menstruation or menstrual health, with an aim of creating an environment where the topic is not considered taboo. However, it should also be recognised that some individuals will see it as a personal and private matter and this should be respected.
Our findings show that most employees don’t feel a strong sense of support in their organisation in relation to their menstrual cycle. It’s very telling that people are much more likely to feel supported by colleagues than by their employer or manager (41%, compared with 21% and 26%, respectively).
What does a supportive workplace for menstrual health look like?
Based on our research, we’ve identified the following principles that organisations can use to plan better support for menstrual health in the workplace:
- build an open and inclusive culture to normalise menstruation in the workplace, through supportive discussions and open dialogue
- create awareness and tackle stigma, for example through having a dedicated section for information and resources on the company intranet
- develop a support framework – this can include policy provision, support pathways, guidance and training
- train and support people managers –include information about the diversity of menstruation experiences and the importance of sensitivity and discretion.
Further, we asked our respondents with lived experience of menstruation and/or menstrual health issues what practical support would be helpful. The top ten are:
- free period products
- planned flexible working (eg reduced hours, working from home, late start late finish, etc)
- more breaks when needed
- paid time off for medical appointments
- paid sick leave
- access to a rest room (eg break room, lounge area, etc)
- adjustments to workload/tasks/duties
- a better-equipped bathroom (eg with a shower)
- clothing change (eg spare clothes, relaxed uniform policy, etc)
- free hot water bottles.
Our guidance for people professionals outlines the steps you can take to build supportive workplaces for menstruation and menstrual health. In doing so, you will be creating more inclusive and healthy workplaces that will help women to thrive at work.
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