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While women’s monthly cycle is key to the survival of the human species, it’s an
experience that is often shrouded by silence and shame. We can do better and
workplaces can help lead the way.
Copyright Thea O’Connor
Over the last few years year, the words ‘menopause’ and ‘menstruation’ have started to be
uttered in workplaces – often in hushed tones – in relation to health and wellbeing, diversity
and inclusion and gender equality.
More articles are appearing in mainstream and professional publications stating that
menopause and menstruation have been a taboo topic in the workplace for too long and
it’s time to bring them into the open. A few workplaces are doing so in Australia, but the
majority are not.
In an era where workplace diversity and inclusion agendas include age, disability, gender
identity and even our sexuality, why not also include these natural life cycles that half of
the population experiences, and that can affect workplace performance?
Fear is usually the reason why not. Fear that it will cause too much discomfort naming
such personal matters, fear that any benefits will be abused or fear that it will make things
worse for women by re-enforcing negative stereotypes of women being the weaker sex.
Such concerns are not new.
Workplaces can be cognisant of these concerns yet still prioritise creating a culture that
genuinely cares for real human beings. All humans inhabit a body that has an internal
‘operating system’ imprinted with daily, monthly and life-stage rhythms. In women, these
rhythms are more obvious in the case of the monthly menstrual cycle and the grand cycle
of our reproductive life that menopause marks the end of. If we want to elicit the best in
people, it only makes sense to care for the human body according to its innate design.
Instead we have a situation where the cultural stigma around menstruation and
menopause leads women to try and hide what is happening in their bodies, especially
when at work, and to push on despite the pain and discomfort that can accompany
women’s periods as well as menopause, according to a survey of 3,000 women conducted
by the Victorian Women’s Trust in 2013. My own confidential interview series with women
working through menopause found similar themes.
As one survey participant said of menstruation, “I was taught to hide it and never show
weakness.” This kind of conditioned cover-up prevents women from asking for simple and practical
supports at work that can make a world of difference to their wellbeing and their
Left unchallenged, negative attitudes to the natural function of women’s bodies, can also
influence people’s perceptions of women’s abilities. A study investigating attitudes
towards menstrual status found that when a woman accidentally dropped a tampon out of
her handbag, she was considered less competent and less likeable than a woman who
accidentally dropped a clip.
Workplaces can play a key role in shifting attitudes, simply by acknowledging the cycling
female body as a natural, and rather amazing, fact of life.
Workplaces that also accommodate the female body through menstrual and menopause
wellbeing programs, training, policies and simple adjustments can expect significant
business benefits. These include improved employee health, productivity and retention of
Improved Productivity & Wellbeing
Small changes to the workplace environment can have a positive impact on menopausal
women’s menopausal symptoms and ability to work, according to a study from Monash
University Business School and Yale University. These changes include temperature
control, a supportive manager and greater autonomy – measures that all staff will benefit
Menstrual flexibly, which grants women more time to rest when energy levels are low
during menstruation, and then to compensate by working more when their energy levels
are higher, typically mid-cycle, results in fewer symptoms the following month, according to
the anecdotal research of Dr Lara Owens who conducted her PhD on menstruation in
organizational contexts and is the author of ‘Her Blood is Gold’.
When Owens trialled a menstrual flexibility policy at Coexist, a small social enterprise in
the UK in 2016 and 2017, she found that while there was a large variation in women’s
needs regarding menstruation at work, these individual differences didn’t appear to
influence the participants’ solidarity with other staff. Male employees expressed no
resentment and said that it gave them more permission to also adjust their own working
day to their bodies when needed.
Paving the way for more women to progress into senior leadership roles
Organisations with more women at the top do better financially than those with fewer
women in senior leadership, so it is in a workplace’s interests to remove or minimise any of
the many barriers to advancing women into senior roles. While we don’t yet know the
degree to which menstrual or menopausal health challenges interfere with women’s career
progression, a survey of menopausal working women conducted earlier this year, involving
700 women found that of those who were going through menopause 45% considered
retiring or taking a break from work. Four percent of working aged women actually do quit
their jobs due to menopause, according to a 2019 survey of 1,000 working-aged women
conducted by BUPA UK. It’s the silence, not just the symptoms, that makes work
untenable for some.
The last two years have demonstrated just how much workplaces can change to
accommodate the real lives of workers. Increased flexibility and transparency about what
is happening in employees’ personal lives have been hallmarks of work during the COVID-
Normalising conversations about menstruation and menopause in the workplace and
treating it like we would any other life-stage or health condition, is another important step towards re-humanising our work ethic. As the title of the Victorian Women’s Trust
research declares – it’s about bloody time!
Thea O’Connor is a workplace wellbeing advisor, Founder of menopause@work Asia
Pacific that helps workplaces become menopause-friendly, offering training, education,
mentoring and organisational support. She is also the facilitator of The Orca Effect, a
confidential program that supports women to emerge from the menopause transition in
their true authority.