Women working in a workshop
According to a survey, 63% of respondents admit feeling uneasy discussing their periods at work. Khalil Mazraawi/AFP

Menstruation, a natural process experienced by women worldwide, has stifled the working lives of women in the UK.

A recent survey conducted by WaterAid, an international non-profit organisation (NGO) dedicated to improving access to clean water and sanitation, sheds light on the alarming prevalence of stress and anxiety faced by women while managing their periods at work. With 85 per cent of respondents reporting feelings of worry or distress, it is evident that menstruation taboos persist, hindering women's well-being and professional experiences.

WaterAid's study, encompassing 2,000 British women and menstruating individuals employed in various work settings, highlights the multifaceted challenges faced by women when navigating menstruation in the workplace.

Unfortunately, more than two in five British women (43%) worry about leaking through clothing. This is closely followed by worries about uncomfortable periods (42%) and heavy bleeding (40%) in these women. These fears are made worse by the fact that 17 per cent of people feel unable to take time off work to address menstruation-related issues, and 10 per cent blame their stress on their employers' lack of assistance.

Despite its ubiquitous nature, menstruation remains a topic shrouded in discomfort within professional settings. A staggering 63 per cent of respondents admit feeling uneasy discussing their periods at work. Moreover, almost half (48%) confessed to concealing their period products while using workplace restrooms, and 46 per cent acknowledged avoiding light-coloured attire during menstruation. Astonishingly, nearly a third (31%) resorted to using improvised supplies like cloth or toilet paper to manage their periods in the office.

WaterAid's survey reveals a disheartening lack of employer support in managing periods at work. Only a mere 3 per cent of employees believe their employers adequately assist women and menstruating individuals in this regard. An overwhelming 80 per cent feel that workplace attitudes toward periods stifle their progress. Respondents identified three key measures businesses should adopt to address this issue: the provision of free period products, flexible working arrangements, and increased breaks.

Prominent figures speak out

Several notable figures in the country have spoken out about ending the cycle of silence surrounding menstrual periods. Charlene White, a well-known Broadcaster and Presenter emphasises the need to normalise periods in the workplace. She asserts that women should not feel compelled to hide this natural process, but should be supported instead. White advocates for the distribution of free feminine hygiene items as a starting point, highlighting the global struggle faced by millions of women without access to basic necessities such as toilets and clean water.

Also speaking was Ama Agbeze, a Netball Star and Commentator, who shared her personal experiences as both a competitor and commentator, detailing the meticulous planning required to manage her menstrual cycle. Agbeze underscores the importance of open conversations and comprehensive education about periods, urging society to embrace a broader understanding of menstruation.

Furthermore, Shakira Akabusi, Founder of Strong Like Mum and Women's Fitness Trainer, reflects on the generational challenges surrounding menstruation at work. She attributes these difficulties to the lingering mindset of concealing periods that some women developed during their school years. Akabusi asserts that such unnecessary struggles and feelings of guilt should be eradicated, particularly as insufficient access to menstrual products and proper sanitation can lead to girls skipping school altogether – an injustice that demands immediate change.

Menstrual stigma goes beyond borders

WaterAid highlights the global implications of inadequate access to sanitation facilities. Shockingly, one in five people worldwide lacks access to a secure bathroom, presenting a particular challenge for women and girls managing their periods. In South Asia, up to one-third of girls leave school each month during their menstrual cycles, effectively impeding their educational progress and potential. The NGO emphasises that the crisis begins within schools and underscores the urgent need for improved access to menstrual supplies, clean water, soap and private restrooms.

Industry-specific challenges:

WaterAid points out that despite women constituting approximately 40 per cent of the global workforce, many continue to face period-related problems at work. In the garment industry, where women make up 80 per cent of all garment workers globally, target-driven factories often fail to create a supportive environment that allows women to comfortably utilise restroom facilities. Likewise, in agriculture, where women play a substantial role and cover extensive areas of rough terrain, access to restrooms and other hygiene facilities becomes challenging.

Jalu, a supervisor at the Nagrifarm Tea Garden, shares that women frequently suffer rashes due to wearing the same sanitary pad for extended periods. Speaking from her 13 years of experience, she said sometimes, a woman's rash or cramps are too painful to bear, making it impossible for her to return to work after a break. She emphasises the importance of addressing these issues and applauds WaterAid's collaboration with Twinings to provide menstrual hygiene education to tea garden employees, resulting in a decrease in period-related skin irritations. Jalu added that women, who work in tea gardens, frequently experience difficulty throughout their menstrual cycles.

Empowering change

Augusta, Principal of the Judy Zinser Memorial School in Liberia, leads by example, eliminating menstrual taboos within her school. Augusta has taken a proactive approach, engaging male teachers in teaching menstrual hygiene, and organising awareness meetings with parents through the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

WaterAid challenging the status quo

Therese Mahon, WaterAid's Regional Program Manager for South Asia, underscores the importance of open discussions surrounding menstruation to eradicate its stigma. She calls upon governments and businesses worldwide to prioritise the needs of women and girls, emphasising the provision of clean water, period-friendly facilities and comprehensive menstrual health education. Mahon encourages businesses to critically evaluate their work environments, implementing necessary changes that not only support those who menstruate but also enhance overall well-being, productivity, and job satisfaction.

Mahon encouraged businesses to be more daring as well, examining their work environments critically and making changes to meet the requirements of those who menstruate. According to her, this is a smart business practice that will assist lower absenteeism and boost productivity in addition to improving the health, well-being, and job happiness of the workforce.

As the world celebrates Menstrual Hygiene Day every May 28, WaterAid has urged governments and companies globally to acknowledge the vital role menstruation health plays in achieving gender equality. The organisation maintains that menstruation should never hinder one's career, education, or personal life. In addition, WaterAid opines that true gender equality will remain an unattainable goal without addressing the systemic issues surrounding menstruation.