Many employers are developing policies to support their menopausal employees going through "the change". But, very few have policies about periods. Are they necessary?
Last year, people in Sweden started debating a new government-funded initiative to provide a supportive environment for women during their periods. The BBC has published advice about how to create a period-friendly workplace and has questioned why we still find it so hard to discuss menstruation in the UK.
The fact is that menstruation affects 51% of the UK population at some point in their lives. However, despite the fact that 91% of women experience period pain at some point during their life and 57% say this has adversely affected their ability to work, many choose to suffer in silence.
There are over 15.1 million women in employment in the UK and employers need to start to take “that time of the month” seriously.
Is period pain a disability?
The Equality Act 2010 covers nine protected characteristics and period pain is not currently one of them, although disability is.
In the recent case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service, the employment tribunal found that the physical effects of menopause may amount to a disability if the effects are long term, substantial and impact on the person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities. In Ms Davies case, she suffered from heavy bleeding, dizziness and poor concentration, symptoms which could also apply to periods. She was awarded £19,000 in compensation.
This is the first reported case which reviewed so called “taboo” issues in line with disability discrimination law. It also suggests that women may be more willing to complain if they feel they have been treated unfairly.
Arguably there is a key difference between period pain and menopause symptoms. Symptoms will (usually) only occur once a month and typically only for a few days whereas menopause is a process that occurs over a longer period of time. However, period pain and pre-menstrual tension could amount to a disability if the severity and frequency of symptoms affect a woman's ability to undertake normal day to day activities.
Even if these symptoms aren't serious enough to amount to a disability , they may still impact on staff performance.
What can employers do?
Start to break down the existing prejudices. Periods and the associated pain are not a taboo topic and should be treated as natural, regular and normal.
Women suffering extreme symptoms may phone in sick during their periods. They may complain of stomach ache or other general symptoms rather than expressly referring to menstrual problems. Therefore, before triggering your formal absence management policy, have a sensitive conversation to find out if there is an underlying reason for their regular absence (or even irregular absence as not all women have periods on a fixed cycle). If it is related to their periods, consider making some adjustments to the trigger points in the policy and/or allowing women to work more flexibly during this time (if that's possible).
Periods affect women in different ways and to different degrees. Some women may need immediate access to a toilet because of a heavy flow or to a hot water bottle (or over the counter medication) to sooth cramps.
Are there any changes you can make to support staff to continue to work rather than phone in sick? Can they work at home, or make up their hours at some other time? This won't be possible for all jobs but it might be worth thinking ahead about how you might be able to accommodate flexible working for 1-2 days a month.
…and be supportive…
Try and be supportive, rather than judgemental. Don't bring your own experience into the discussion (or that of your wife or girlfriend).
Find out what you can do to help. The employee might just want to be able to use a hot water bottle or to be able to take more frequent loo breaks.
Not all women will want to discuss their periods with their line manager. If they don't is there someone else they could talk to?
Do you need a policy?
It might be helpful to develop a policy so that your female staff understand what support is available to them. This should help to create a positive and more productive working environment and encourage women to speak more openly about “that time of the month”.