Creating a workplace culture that supports its menstruating employees is critical for employee health. Menstrual leave policies are one way to create more equitable workspaces, but there are many ways employers could support their menstruating employees.
This article provides suggestions for adopting period-friendly practices at work. Besides menstrual leave, we also discuss other pro-period policies that may be easier to set up and tailor to your team’s needs.
Who is this guide for?
These tips for promoting period-positive workplaces are useful for both employees and employers, and we recommend both parties become familiar with them. Everyone has a role to play in creating menstrual leave or other period-friendly policies, including teammates who have never menstruated.
It’s important that all stakeholders empathize with one another regardless of their role or menstrual status. We encourage open dialogue between employees and management, so everyone can align around a common goal: keeping employees healthy, physically and mentally.
What is menstrual leave?
Menstrual leave, or “period leave”, is a policy that adapts or reduces time spent at work for people who experience difficult menstrual periods.
Menstrual leave recognizes the menstrual cycle as a legitimate aspect of one’s health, and acknowledges that getting a period each month can negatively impact some people’s work. These policies allow employees time and space to address their physical and emotional needs differently throughout the month.
Menstruation leave is distinct from sick leave because the employee is not sick, but rather experiencing a natural, recurring process. In that way, policy frameworks may mirror disability-related policies more closely than sick day policies.
Menstrual leave is also distinct from personal leave or vacation policies. Period cramps are the leading cause of missed work in women under 30. Organizations without period-specific policies may force employees to spend personal, vacation, or sick days on enduring their period, thereby limiting the number of days available to use when they’re actually sick or need a vacation.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to period leave
Some employers may provide a designated number of ‘period days’ off, while others have unlimited ‘health’ days available to use however the employee needs. Some may offer the option to work from home during menstruation, while others may offer half days or reduced hours. Policies may look different at large corporations compared to small not-for-profits or startups.
Regardless of company size, stage, or sector, it’s important that menstrual leave policies be tailored to the needs of employees at that company. That’s why it’s so important to clearly communicate the impact not having a menstrual leave policy may be having on employee health and performance. The following sections provide some tips for opening that dialogue and framing period-friendly policies as an opportunity for leadership.
What other policies besides menstrual leave support menstruating employees?
A full-scale menstrual leave policy may not be realistic or appropriate for all teams or workplace settings. But that doesn’t mean all workplaces can’t support their menstruating employees in some way.
For example, employees and employers could work together to:
- Normalize menstruation in the workplace
- Assess the impact current policies are having on your team, and the need for changes
- Reframe the menstrual cycle as a positive (or at least not a negative) contribution to the team
- Allow employees flexibility in tailoring their tasks and schedules to their menstrual cycle
Normalize talking about menstruation in the workplace
Let’s face it: period stigma at work is real, and it runs deep. Ever felt compelled to shove your tampon up your sleeve while you pass your co-worker’s desk? We’d venture to guess you weren’t born with that instinct, you learned it—at school, specifically.
If you grew up in the US, there’s a good chance most of what you’d come to learn about periods happened in middle school, including how to navigate them in institutional settings. Our founder and CEO Mimi Millard recounted her experience learning about periods for the first time on the You Turn podcast:
“The school nurse came in and asked if she could take all the girls to a private room. And first off, why are we separating the boys and the girls to have this conversation? This is a hugely important piece of human health that everyone should understand, whether or not they menstruate.”
When menstruation is introduced with a sense of secrecy, secrecy follows us into the office. When we can’t openly discuss periods in meaningful places like work or school, people may start believing menstrual issues that need medical attention are normal—then suffer in silence, in a world where half the population never learned about menstruation in the first place.
How would our lives be different if everyone entered the workforce with baseline knowledge and respect for the menstrual cycle? We can’t redo middle school, but we can create workplace cultures that respect employees by treating menstruation as a legitimate component of employee health.
- Whether your office has a formal menstrual leave policy or more informal period-friendly practices, consider including them in your company handbook or team charter. Be sure to mention it during the onboarding process for new hires.
- Does your company provide employees with complimentary products like snacks, first aid, or toilet paper? Pads and tampons are a basic necessity, so employers should include them among its provisions.
- Consider stocking period supplies in all bathrooms regardless of gender, and resist the urge to hide pads and tampons in the back of the cabinet. It’s important that employees know they’re available, and visual cues in the office environment can help normalize menstruation.
Assess your team’s need for menstrual leave
Research shows menstrual symptoms like cramps and PMS take a serious toll on work performance. 70% of people with PMS and 42% of people with cramps report that their symptoms affect their ability to do their job. Over 90% of menstruating people regularly experience at least one difficult symptom, and up to 36% suffer from severe period pain each month (i.e. pain scores of 8-10 on a 10-point scale). How do those figures compare to you and your team?
Powering through work during menstruation also carries risks. Research shows period cramps do 7X more damage through “presenteeism”—a loss of productivity at work from pain and discomfort. How might leadership go about measuring the impact of presenteeism on your team?
How to talk to your boss about menstrual leave
Ensure management understands the full scale of the problem, especially if they don’t menstruate. Make them aware of the stats above. Be sure they know periods happen every month, last up to a week, and aren’t just about blood. Common symptoms include pain, fatigue, anxiety, digestive issues, and trouble concentrating, among a host of other physical and emotional problems.
If it’s safe to do so, speak from personal experience. Recount times where your period negatively impacted your ability to do your job. What were the consequences? Sharing personal struggles can go a long way in building empathy.
If you struggle with a gynecological disorder that worsens your period symptoms, relaying that fact can help build context and help management understand the scope of the issue.
Reflect on what you’ve lost by working on your period, and what it has cost the team. Do your best to quantify costs, and put them in terms meaningful to management, like key metrics or KPIs, or resources like time, money, or bandwidth.
Flip the script on the menstrual cycle at work
We recounted above our experience getting the “period talk” in sex ed. Whether explicitly said or implicit in the way the girls and boys were separated while saying it, we took a few major takeaways from the lesson: our periods were coming (if they hadn’t already); they were definitely going to suck; and when it happens, no one can know!
Instead, we wish we were told the full story of the menstrual cycle—a story most of us aren’t told until much later in life (if at all). The menstrual cycle is a vital sign of health, and depending on how you look at it, even an advantage.
Just like everyone has a 24-hour clock (also known as Circadian rhythm) that sets the pace for hormonal happenings throughout the day, people who menstruate have an additional monthly clock—the menstrual cycle.
Despite what you may have learned in health class, the hormones behind your cycle (so long as they’re in balance) are designed to help you, not make you miserable. As progesterone kicks into overdrive after ovulation, it actually helps the body perform at its best. For example, it increases energy levels and helps build muscle. It can affect emotions, lower inhibitions, and bring more confidence and courage, among many other actions throughout the body.
If more people recognized the week around ovulation as a performance peak rather than baseline, would it change how the menstrual cycle is perceived at work?
Sync employee work schedules to their menstrual cycle
Once you start paying attention to when in your cycle you’re hormonally predisposed to feeling certain ways (i.e. energetic and risky around ovulation, withdrawn and reflective around menstruation), it can really change how you schedule your life—including your work life. This is especially true for employees with flexible schedules or the autonomy to build their own to-do lists.
In that way, paying attention to your menstrual cycle can actually help you be more productive at work. By syncing your calendar with your hormonal clock, you may find certain tasks or parts of a project are easier at certain points in your cycle. For example…
During the follicular and ovulatory phases of the menstrual cycle (i.e. about 14 days after your period):
- It’s common to feel: hopeful, experimental, clear-headed, energetic
- Use this time for: organization, planning new projects, analytical tasks like spreadsheeting or budgeting, getting ahead of to-do lists, collaboration and teamwork, public speaking, taking risks
During the luteal and menstrual phases (i.e. the weeks leading up and during your period):
- It’s common to feel: reflective, cautious, in touch with your emotions, introverted or withdrawn
- Use this time for: reflecting on previous projects, creative tasks, writing, clarifying your thoughts and feelings, individual assignments
Syncing your cycle to your work schedule also means you can forgive yourself for not being productivity machines all the time. We wouldn’t beat ourselves up for needing sleep at night. Needing extra rest during your period is a natural part of being cyclical, and an opportunity to show yourself (and your menstruating teammates) some grace.
Have you created menstrual leave or other period-friendly policies at work?
Already adopted some period-positive work practices? Whether they’re among these tips or a different approach, we’d love to hear about them!
How easy or hard were they to enact? How things shake out afterward? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.
This information is for education purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition.