‘Such a solution would be great’, said 34-year-old Aleksandra Łoszkowska, employee of a large automotive company in Wrocław. ‘I work at an office, but I have a problem every month because of very heavy menstruation. When I have meetings at work, I feel very uncomfortable when I cannot get up from the table. And I don’t leave the room to go to the toilet for fear of leaving a visible mark on the chair. My mind is not focussed on work at that time but rather on how to prevent embarrassing myself’, she admitted.
There are countless similar situations. During menstruation, many women, as well as transgender or non-binary people, feel unwell, or even extremely bad. Some people complain about feeling heavy, abdominal pain, back pain, diarrhoea, while others feel weak, and yet others, like Aleksandra, struggle with heavy bleeding. When on their period, women may be irritable, exhausted, have mood swings, eat lots of chocolate (the munchies) and often sweat more profusely than usual. No two women share the same problem.
Menstruation is not a disease?
According to various statistics, 80 percent of women have experienced menstrual pain. In contrast, more than 14 percent of women admitted they had taken time off work for feeling unwell. Unfortunately, 80 percent of respondents confirmed they continued working despite poor physical or mental condition.
Why? You can read various fora and comments under articles on menstruation to see they were too embarrassed to ask the manager for a day off. While at school, they were repeatedly told that ‘your period is not a disease’, ‘it will not kill you’, and that you should not talk about it with anyone.
This is confirmed by the Kulczyk Foundation’s report, which shows that only 68 percent of women admit menstruating, and nearly 25 percent believe that women should not talk about it in the presence of men.
In contrast, four years earlier, Thinx, a company based in the US, studied menstruation behaviours in the workplace. Their study showed very similar trends. According to the study, 51 percent of men believe it was inappropriate to mention menstruation in the workplace. Twenty percent of women said menstruation interfered with their daily activities such as work. And when we put work aside, as many as 58 percent of women experienced embarrassment due to their period in general. As you can see, gender discrimination is doing well in many countries.
The Kulczyk Foundation is working to bring change to this. Together with the Polish Business Roundtable, the Employers of Poland, Okresowa Koalicja [Period Coalition] and Sukces Pisany Szminką [Success Written in Lipstick], the Foundation launched the Career Cycle social campaign. It is aimed at employers who want to ensure gender equality and take care of the health and well-being of their employees.
‘The Career Cycle is about building equality, spreading awareness of menstrual health and ensuring availability of sanitary pads, which are as necessary at the workplace as toilet paper, soap or a hand dryer’, explained Dominika Kulczyk, President of the Kulczyk Foundation.
‘If our studies show that a woman has to hide her sanitary pad when she is going to the restroom to change it, then there is still something missing from our labour market. Do you know what it is? A gentle and caring approach to female and male employees. Understanding their needs. Openness to change that should have been in place for a long time’, she added, encouraging Polish companies to join the initiative.
The programme is sponsored by the UN Global Compact Network Poland.
When a woman is… an employee
Is menstrual leave a new thing? No. Japanese women have been able to use it since 1947. Japan was the first country to initiate the concept of ‘a physiological leave’, or seirikyuuka. Indonesia followed in Japan’s footsteps. Then came a very long time of nothing, and only in 2001 did South Korea decide to introduce it. However, it must be noted that even though women there are allowed to take one day off per month, they rarely take it in fear of losing their jobs in male-dominated companies.
This is not surprising if you consider that Sung Jae-gi, President of the Man of Korea organisation, tweeted that Korean women should be ashamed of having such a privilege. ‘Why are you making such a fuss about menstruation when the birth rate in this country is the lowest in the world?’
Fortunately, more countries followed soon and introduced menstrual leave. These were Taiwan, Zambia, and some provinces of China. Such a solution was planned in Italy but it was abandoned eventually after several rather tumultuous years of preparation. Many private companies decided to embark on the idea, despite the lack of legislation.
Although many governments in Europe and around the world have not yet taken any specific legislative steps, many private companies are implementing the revolution in place.
In 2016, the English company Coexist, which at the time had 24 women out of a total of 31 employees, decided to introduce the leave. Next, there was the Australian women’s rights organisation, the Victorian Women’s Trust. Four years later, there was the Indian food delivery company Zomato.
Poland, too, has companies that think about women. The first brand to introduce the menstrual leave (3 days per year), without waiting for any governmental decisions, was the clothing company PLNY LALA. The next one was Spadiora, and its President, Marta Lech-Maciejewska, took to Instagram to explain that the changes are meant to be a certain step into the future. None of her past bosses has ever shown a similar level of understanding for menstruating women. There is more: the owner has introduced a four-day work week, because she believes it has a positive effect on both employee productivity and job satisfaction.
Other companies have also decided to introduce menstrual leave, including More Bananas creative agency, and Verde, a spa parlour based in Kraków.
Doable? Yes, of course! All you need is the will.
An understanding and supporting employer
According to the Kulczyk Foundation, it does not take much to make the workplace menstruation-friendly. What you need is readiness and understanding. So what can a business owner do to make women feel comfortable during their difficult days?
Provide more restrooms if possible. Women use them more often than men, and it is embarrassing to stand in line to a booth with a sanitary pad in your hand. Plus, the bins should be emptied regularly, the restrooms should be clean and stocked with basic hygiene products such as soap, toilet paper, and a mirror so that women can check their clothes during a heavy period.
The employer should ensure continued availability of menstrual products, such as sanitary pads, tampons or menstrual cups (the latter are, incidentally, the most environmentally friendly products since they can be used for up to several years) – preferably of various sizes and absorbencies.
According to the Foundation recommendations, it is advisable to place the products in a neutral place (since not everyone menstruates) that is easily accessible and does not require having to ask someone for help.
A leave that becomes a benefit
The said practices make the workplace friendly, the environment non-stigmatising and understanding, and the employer is perceived as one who cares about the comfort of their employees and prioritises equality of all genders. This brings tangible results. Which ones? Think about more business partners and candidates for work. Also the company’s competitiveness on the labour market is clearly improved.
Surprisingly, menstrual leave will not reduce the number of people working in a given month. To the contrary, it may positively influence attendance and productivity at work. A woman who does not have to present the L4 sick leave certificate or use up her holiday entitlement, can rest at home during her menstruation, and then return to her duties without stress and at full blast.
Understanding of their menstrual cycle, as pointed out by the Kulczyk Foundation, allows women to reach their full potential. Depending on the phase of the cycle of the menstruating person, they can consciously leverage their predispositions for different types of activities.
Such new rules, including unrestrained communication about health issues in the workplace, may also make employees more confident. And that what it is all about: to make everyone feel important regardless of their gender.
By Agnieszka Jarosz:
The text was published at WP.pl on 31 January 2022