In recent years, employers have started offering women support with issues such as menopause, miscarriages, and fertility treatments. Are periods next?
In recent years, employers have started to take women’s health and reproductive issues increasingly seriously. Household names such as John Lewis and Sainsbury’s now offer various types of menopause support for their staff. Meanwhile, some companies now provide paid leave for fertility treatments or even help out with IVF costs.
Which leads us to something that will affect most women every month for several years: periods. Could this be the next area where employers have to up their support – and, if so, what type of support do women need? Or could talk of extra support, particularly period leave, bring a backlash against women at work?
During their period, many women can either work as normal or only need slight adjustments. But this is not the case for everyone – periods were the top reason that working women in the UK took time off due to a female health issue, according to a June survey by BetterUp, a workplace-coaching company. Periods accounted for 26% of women who took this type of leave, followed by pregnancy-related issues (19%) and menopause (14%).
And yet many women feel they have to fib about why they’re calling in sick. In BetterUp’s survey, a quarter of the women who had taken time off didn’t want to tell their boss why they felt unwell. A 2018 survey of over 30,000 Dutch women likewise found that 14% had taken time off during their period, but most of them didn’t disclose the real reason when they called in sick.
“[Our] findings were surprising but also not surprising,” says Erin Eatough, BetterUp’s manager of behavioural science. “Being a woman and having spoken to other women in the workplace, I’m acutely aware of the pain and challenges that women go through in work environments.”
“However what was surprising was that, in the majority of companies, little or no action has been taken to support women when it comes to this part of their lives,” she adds.
In the UK and most countries around the world, it is left to employers to decide whether they offer working women any support with their periods. Hargreaves Lansdown, a financial services company based in Bristol, lets staff adjust their hours or work flexibly. Coexist, a social enterprise also based in Bristol, allows staff to take time off and make it up later. Both companies also allow women to take sick leave if needed.
But such employers are in the minority. Almost two-thirds of employers have no policies, guidance or manager-training at all around menstrual health, according to a CIPD survey of over 800 organisations earlier this year. Only 1% cover it “to a large extent.”
So, what can employers do? Rachel Suff, a senior policy advisor for employment relations at CIPD, gave the following advice:
Some women’s rights advocates oppose the idea of standalone period leave. Emma Barnett, who hosts BBC’s Woman’s Hour, says in her 2019 book about periods that it could increase workplace discrimination against women.
Indeed, there is a risk that period leave could reinforce a negative stereotype: that women are less reliable employees due to their child-bearing bodies. Barnett argues that existing sick leave and flexible working policies should be able to accommodate the periods issue, as long as it is acknowledged openly.
As each employer decides what to do, they shouldn’t forget to ask the women in their workplace what they would find useful. Research from around the world has shown that goods and services primarily used by women, from public transport networks to cooking stoves, are often designed without consulting them in a meaningful way.
“Whether these flexible working arrangements take the form of specific “period leave” or sick leave, women should be included in these decisions,” says Eatough at BetterUp.