You’re at work, and surprise! You start your period. You frantically text everyone you know who might have a tampon stash in their desk, and once you’ve acquired said tampon, you slip it up your sleeve or into your pocket and power-walk to the bathroom. We’ve all been there.
What’s wrong with that picture? First, you don’t have access to the products you need in the office when your period sneaks up on you. Second, you feel like you have to hide that you’re menstruating, even though it’s completely normal.
You’re not the problem here. In 2018, Thinx, a popular period-proof underwear brand, found that 42 percent of women experienced period-shaming at work. Like you, 73 percent have hidden a pad or tampon on their way to the bathroom, and 58 percent report feeling embarrassed at work because of their period. So you’re not alone, but the facts are clear—things need to change. We have better things we could be doing than covertly stuffing our sleeves with feminine hygiene products.
Whether you’re an old pro with Aunt Flow or you’re trying to be an ally to team members with periods, here are seven things we all need to understand about periods at work in order to normalize menstruation.
Taking a sick day for your period should be okay
According to Lunette, a popular menstrual cup brand, more than half of the people who get their periods report feeling pain for one to two days each cycle, and 20 percent said their periods interfered with daily activities such as work. Not to mention, 10 percent of the population suffers from conditions such as anemia or endometriosis, which can lead to reduced work performance.
In less statistic-y terms, the majority of people who menstruate feel legitimately sick while they’re PMSing or bleeding. Periods can cause nausea, cramps, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Personally, I’ve had days where I’ve left the office, gone home, and collapsed in bed in the dark under a heating pad until my symptoms passed.
Remember that periods can feel as awful as the flu or a bad cold and allow yourself to rest and recuperate. If you’re an employer, remember to take your employee’s menstrual symptoms as seriously as you would any other illness.
Periods can affect us mentally and emotionally
The Mayo Clinic lists the following emotional and behavioral symptoms for premenstrual syndrome (which can also extend into the beginning part of your cycle):
Tension or anxiety
Ever felt like you were going to fall asleep at your desk or been in a meeting that made you anxious? That doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job—it means you’re a human being, and your mental or physical health shouldn’t have to suffer because your boss doesn’t take it seriously.
If you’re a manager with an employee who usually performs well but has a few days a month that they struggle with work performance, chalk it up to normal day-to-day fluctuations. Regardless of gender, everyone is allowed to have “off” days every now and again. Be gentle with them, and encourage them to be gentle with themselves.
Your coworker is probably hiding a tampon in their sleeve, and that’s a cultural issue
First, people with periods should not have to feel ashamed to walk around the office with a tampon, but they do. Why? Because of the stigma and shame we are taught to feel about our periods from a young age.
Nancy Kramer, the founder of Free the Tampons, found that 5 percent of women avoid carrying their purses to the bathroom because they’re worried that people might guess they’re on their period. Kramer has been lobbying since 1981 to require offices to provide free menstrual products for their employees.
Second, companies should provide free menstrual products. In addition to period poverty being a serious issue—many women are unable to afford and/or access the products they need, so they take paid and unpaid sick leave instead—the fact that people who menstruate require these products means they essentially take a pay cut every month. They can’t afford not to. And according to Kramer, it only costs $4.67 per woman, per year, to provide employees with the products they need.
Kiran Gandhi, an activist most well known for free bleeding while she ran the London Marathon, said in an interview with The Lily, “We are told from the moment we hit puberty that we aren’t good enough. We’re told that our menstruation is disgusting. We aren’t taught to feel joy and gratitude . . . I think it’s problematic that we as women don’t talk about it with each other. Because women suffer in silence every day, and people assume it’s a non-issue.”
Asking your coworker who’s in a bad mood if it’s because they’re on their period = not cool
I’ll keep this one short. Equating a bad mood to period symptoms is flat-out sexist. Maybe I’m moody because I have PMS, but maybe I’m moody because you’re sexist. Ever thought about that?
All bathrooms should have menstrual products
Remember those free period products I mentioned earlier? Put those in every bathroom, regardless of the sign on the door. Trans and non-binary people get periods, too. Be inclusive.
Anything you can do, I can do bleeding . . . but that doesn’t mean I should have to
Ever heard people buzzing about paid period leave? Some companies have considered it, while others seek to implement a workplace culture that makes it easier for employees to care for themselves—including flexible work hours and the ability to work from home when they need to.
Either way, people with periods should feel empowered to take care of their bodies the way they need to.
The good news is there are companies working to normalize periods in the workplace
Although it’s taken centuries, there are companies normalizing period talk. Companies who sell menstrual products are boldly advertising with straightforward imagery: Thinx has ads that read “I’m hardcore cramping so pls just leave me be for 3-7 days,” and Bodyform launched a campaign in 2017 that used actual period blood, instead of the infamous blue liquid we all saw in pad commercials growing up.
Companies such as Aunt Flow have menstrual product programs for businesses and schools so they can provide free products for their employees and students. Plus, “for every 10 tampons and pads sold, Aunt Flow donates 1 to PERIOD.ORG, a non-profit that distributes products to people in need.”
It’s not too late to empower your employees to feel okay about having their periods at work (or at home).