Accommodating Menstrual Periods in the Workplace

Surabhi Kulshrestha explores the treatment of menstruation in the context of the Canadian workplace.

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Life doesn’t stop when your period starts. At best, periods are uncomfortable and at worst, they can induce extensive physical and mental strain and disrupt productivity. Menstrual symptoms persist beyond the safety of our homes and are experienced in every context of our society.  It is time Canadian businesses and institutions introduce practices that accommodate menstrual cycles and their potentially debilitating symptoms.

The pain associated with menstruation should not be understated. Dr. John Guillebaud, a professor of reproductive health at University College London states that the cramping pain associated with periods is almost comparable to having a heart attack. Furthermore, the American Academy of Family Physicians states that severe period cramps otherwise known as dysmenorrhea can disrupt the daily lives of up to 20% of women. Despite how prevalent this issue is, Canadian employers offer little to no acknowledgement or accommodation for period-related issues.

Painful period cramps can easily interfere with one’s concentration and efficiency in a work environment. For many women, there is no combination of period cramp remedies that help during the first few days of their menstrual cycle. The mental and physical pain can be further exacerbated by the expectations of a work environment. Attending meetings, assisting customers, and even commuting to work become all the more difficult when one is barely able to stand. This experience is supported by a study in the British Medical Journal, which concludes that women lose roughly nine days of productivity at work every year due to menstrual cramps. This pressure to be at work despite feeling unwell can be attributed to the lack of flexibility inherent in many workplaces. Period-related pain is simply not recognized by employers as a valid reason to take time off.

It also doesn’t help that menstrual cycles still carry stigma and censorship. In a recent study, out of 4,514 women who took time off from work due to their period, only a fifth told their employers the reason behind their absence. Why is it that we can’t inform our employers that we are in pain due to a recurring, near-universal, biological process? This discomfort only encourages more stigma, more silent suffering.

Photo Credit: Bleed the North. Image Description: Brown period packs organized in rows.

In order to accommodate period cramps, some countries like Japan and South Korea offer “menstrual leaves” every month for their employees. Unfortunately, such policies are ineffective as women don’t use the leaves due to guilt and fear of being judged by their male coworkers.  Any solution regarding period pain in the workplace requires an increase in educational awareness while also eliminating existing misconceptions.

In Ontario, the sex education curriculum plays a crucial part in forming our fundamental understanding of menstrual cycles. I remember being in elementary school where sex education classes were split by gender. This marked the first barrier created around understanding periods. A more demystifying approach, one where I sat with my entire class would likely have fostered a more shared understanding of periods.

Another shortcoming is the curriculum’s narrow focus on menstrual cycles. A narrow focus on biology simply isn’t enough to form a holistic understanding of periods and their wide range of side-effects. One high school in British Columbia has sought to fill this gap by partnering with researchers at British Columbia’s Women’s hospital and Health Centre to provide an experimental program on endometriosis. The program aims to teach over 100 students from grade 8 to 12 about the symptoms and effects of endometriosis which is often underdiscussed or simply not touched upon in standard sex education curriculums. Ideally, reducing these barriers to information on menstruation and related topics at an early age will translate into more open and accepting work environments in the future.

Canadian employers should also provide more accommodation to deal with periods in the workplace. Accommodation can involve increasing flexibility where one can take half-days or switch around hours to finish or start later. Additional period-friendly measures include placing sanitary napkins in washrooms and making washrooms more accessible for those on their feet the whole day. The effectiveness of these measures was reflected in a study which found that women who were able to take off work for menstruation-related reasons lost 1.3 days of productivity on average compared to women who lost 8.9 days as they attempted to work with their menstrual symptoms. It becomes clear that these workplace changes can create better working environments for employees which can also translate into a direct increase in productivity and boosted morale in the long-term.

Canada has a unique opportunity to develop a truly progressive solution which finally acknowledges the elephant in the room or better still, the bleeding elephant in the breakroom. If Canadian employers commit to exploring the range of options that accommodate menstruation in the workplace, a new space for understanding, acceptance and productivity can be created.

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Surabhi Kulshrestha is a graduate of the University of Waterloo.

For more information on the treatment of menstruation in Canada, join the youth-led National Period Week of Action from November 2nd to November 9th. This event is hosted by Bleed the North, an organization that seeks to end period poverty and stigma across Ontario.

 

 

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