Call for greater openness at work about periods

A new book by journalist Emma Barnett argues for women to be enabled to be more open about period pain at work, while stopping short of calling for specific period leave.

Period pain


Women need to be able to be more open about their periods at work to remove the stigma and shame that still surround them and force them to be lie about painful symptoms, according to a new book.

Journalist Emma Barnett’s book It’s about bloody time. Period. is a call to arms to break the “bizarre taboo…holding women back”.

Barnett, who suffered years of terrible period cramps as a result of endometriosis, a progressive illness which can cause infertility, was the first person in the UK to say “I’m menstruating, right now” live on tv. Following her diagnosis after years of pain every month – the result of lack of knowledge about the condition due to our collective prudishness around periods – Barnett had a three-hour operation to reduce her pain. As a result of her experience the BBC commissioned a poll for her radio show on period pain. Over 57% of women who had period pain [91% of those polled] said it affected their ability to work yet only 27% had told their employer.

In a section about periods at work, Barnett discusses the importance of openness at work, even if it might be awkward at first. While she acknowledges that many women are affected by period pain at work, she says she is not saying that their performance is impacted. In fact, she says, working through the pain might take their minds off it. However, with greater openness there would be more understanding and she says small adjustments and even just not having to be secretive about period pain or to lie about it could make a big difference.

Period leave

Barnett also discusses the issue of period leave, which is policy in some Asian countries, although a policy that few women take up for fear that it might affect their careers. Barnett mentions at least one UK business, Coexist, that has a formal policy on period leave and allows women to ask for remote working or flexi hours if their symptoms are severe. The policy has also been used by a man who suffered regular migraines.

The owner of the business argues that it helps to address the stigma around period pain. Barnett is not, however, convinced that period leave is practical or would work in women’s favour in many organisations. Instead it could hold women back and lead to greater discrimination, she says, adding that existing sick leave and flexible working policies can accommodate the problem if it is just acknowledged openly. For her openness is the main problem. “Lies are draining,” she says. “We need to reach a point where talking about periods at work, and how we cope with them, is totally normal.”

Too often, she adds, women are complicit in the “conspiracy of silence” about periods, increasing secrecy and the sense of stigma, which impacts on women’s confidence.

Period poverty

The book covers everything from sex education, religious attitudes to periods and first periods to period sex, the menopause and period poverty.  In the section on period poverty she talks both of the impact on school students and on older women, how it can pose a threat to their physical health [through using other products which may not be as hygienic or leaving tampons in for too long or reusing them] and their mental well being as well as making it harder for them to go out or, in the case of students, more likely to take days off school.

In her Period Pride Manifesto at the end of the book, Barnett outlines a number of actions women can take as part of her “period crusade”, from petitioning MPs to make period products free for all, like loo rolls, being a good colleague and boss to those having periods and asking for what you need to make periods easier to educating those around you.

She says: “Our task is to make menstruation so totally and utterly unremarkable for the next generation that when the word ‘period’ is mentioned no eyebrows are raised in disdain or disbelief.”

*It’s about bloody time. Period. by Emma Barnett is published by Harper Collins, price £12.99.

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