Professor Lew-Starowicz: The contemporary approach to work is based on maximised efficiency. It does not take human weaknesses and well-being into account.

The professional lives of women and men are still two completely different worlds.

‘The Guardian’ wrote recently that for a woman in the workplace, there is a maze of social issues to navigate. You need to pay extra consideration to how to talk, how to dress and how to ask for a raise… In such conditions, mentioning your physiology, such as a painful period, is not an easy task. How do we change it? And why isn’t it worth at least trying? We asked these questions to psychotherapist and sexologist Professor Michał Lew-Starowicz.

‘Why do companies have foosball tables but no free tampons?’ asked the authors of the study ‘Okresy w pracy’ (Periods at Work). The study was designed by Vulvani, an international platform that aims to normalise taboo subjects. This is not a coincidence: the issue of menstrual health today is primarily tackled by NGOs.

In Poland, the topic has been brought up, among others, by the Career Cycle programme, an initiative of the Kulczyk Foundation that addresses the issue of gender equality and what it means in professional life. We asked Professor Michał Lew-Starowicz, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Centre for Postgraduate Medical Education in Warsaw about menstruation at work, the impact of menstrual health on business operations, and about the ever-shifting stereotype-laden language about women.

Agnieszka Jarosz: What is the impact of menstruation on company operations and relations between employees? Is there any impact at all?

Professor Michał Lew-Starowicz: The impact stems not so much from menstruation itself but from the fact that many women experience problems during their period such as pain, weakness or gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms may also impair their mental well-being and make it difficult to perform tasks at work or interact with other people.

What can we do to make the workplace female-friendly? And to do so at times that are difficult for them?

I would not constrain such efforts to women only or to menstruation only. The contemporary dominant approach to work is based on the expectation of maximised efficiency. It does not take human weaknesses or downcast moods into account. The ability of colleagues at work to support each other in such situations is an important element of a good team that is often underestimated. It is part of the workplace culture, which depends largely on the style exercised by team leaders or line managers.

The style is also embedded in the language we use. And such language is still largely based on stereotypes. ‘Don’t talk to her today, she’s on her period’, or ‘she’s upset because she’s having those days’.

Stereotypes reduce people or situations to a single specific trait and prevent us from breaking the mould. We should all be more sensitive to the language that gives meaning to the situations above. Should we really avoid talking to a woman who happens to be on her period? Or does she have no other reasons to be upset during those few days? Obviously, this does not make sense. Instead, are we able to show more compassion, as we would to a person who suffers from sciatica or a migraine? The fact that menstruation occurs regularly and is generally a symptom of good health sometimes leads us to overlook the associated problems.

Until recently, menstruation has been considered a taboo topic in the workplace. Today, the discussion is being taken up more often but often in a way that suggests menstruation is yet another obstacle in your career development. Is that true?

This is consistent with the said performance culture and attendance at work. For the same reason, women often struggle with difficulties returning to work after having children. They feel their position is at risk. This, in turn, makes them refrain from getting pregnant, or decide to get pregnant at an age when complications are more likely, and this is associated with the fear of failure, and of losing the chance to become a mother. When pushed to the extreme, people can be divided into two categories: those who are absolutely devoted to work and neglect other areas of life or their own health, and those who value their life outside work, but find it difficult to compete in the professional world with the job-before-everything-else type of worker. At the same time, it is those former people who are more at risk of professional burnout and depression.

Our conversation revolves around menstruation. However, women also face menopause at some point of their lives. This time is often viewed just as negatively. What do you think about the chances for a change in this regard, also thanks to the approach of employers?

The topic of menstruation is kind of symbolic to me. I think there is a need to better understand the human condition, which includes moments or periods of feeling unwell or being weak that happen to both men and women. It does not matter whether they relate to menstruation, menopause, migraine headaches, prostate growth or irritable bowel syndrome. If your community of people supports you at times of weakness, you are more likely to return and to engage even more when you regain your strength. This makes us more empathetic and willing to support others when they find themselves in a similar situation. It is in the interest of every employer to understand this simple correlation.

Do you think menstrual health promotion initiatives in Poland can succeed? Or is it still a bit early for the Polish labour market for such a social campaign?

This kind of initiative is designed to change people’s ways of thinking. So it makes no sense to consider it premature. What would be the purpose of the campaign if the topics it raises are received with full understanding and openness?