Startup Life/Opinion/

It’s time we talked about menstruating at work. Period

90% of people experience cramps on their period — some as painful as a heart attack.

Marie Krebs

By Marie Krebs

There’s been a flood (pardon the pun) of news about periods at work lately. Spain is on its way to being the first European country to grant paid menstrual leave, Scotland has made period products free for all and more companies are offering period pain leave globally. 

If you’re a startup leader, the reason to have a view on periods should be clear. 90% of women experience cramps on their period — some as painful as a heart attack. And then there’s 75% of those who experience a version of what I have, where serotonin can’t find my brain once a month. Not the most pleasant experience when I’m trying to focus on work, I can assure you.

But don’t take it from me — just ask your colleagues. 100% of the best high-performers I know who have periods have struggled because of lack of support. The result is that those high-performers have a difficult time, and it also means they can’t contribute as much to their companies.

Here are four ways you can get on board and lead your team to high performance through inclusion — in ways that have a positive impact across multiple aspects of the employee journey, starting with period support. 

The time is now — don’t be late. 

First, lay the foundation

To drive change effectively, you will need:

  • Leadership buy-in. This is not a people or HR team thing. It’s an everyone thing, and you’ll need executive sponsorship to drive lasting change effectively. Why not have them introduce the initiatives you’re facilitating?
  • Champions everywhere. Change happens through webs, not lines. As you facilitate and implement new initiatives, having champions role modelling will help normalise new behaviours.

These two are the foundations to driving lasting change — so let’s take a closer look at what it is exactly we can do to drive that change.

Sparking conversations

Periods still feel like a shameful topic. We still go to the loo hiding tampons up our sleeves like we’re going to collapse if anyone notices. We still really want to take a day off because of the pain, but don’t because we’re ashamed of why. 

The good news is that the best remedy’s free: it’s normalising the conversation. Silence is fertile ground for fear to grow, and something as simple as talking about periods can go a long, long way. 

When I talk about how my menstrual cycle symptoms impact my life, or just tell others that it’s ok to share about how theirs does if they’d like to, I know it enables others to do the same.

“When I talk about how my menstrual cycle symptoms impact my life, or just tell others that it’s ok to share about how theirs does if they’d like to, I know it enables others to do the same”

To scale that approach, we implemented Employee Resource Groups at Learnerbly. 

Take my colleague Kassia, who has endometriosis like one in ten women. Not only does she find support in the regular conversations happening in our mental health circle at Learnerbly, talking about periods in our employee guide is why she applied to the company in the first place.

Flexibility

We used to have a permanent office and the option to WFH. One day, I’m crippled with cramps at my desk. I’m not in so much pain that I can’t work but I’m really uncomfortable, so I ask myself: “Why am I here, when I could be at home in pyjamas hugging a hot water bottle?”

The answer is centuries in the making. I’d totally internalised that I should grind my teeth through my periods instead of taking simple, available steps to take care of myself.

Today, as more companies embrace hybrid ways of working, it’s more relevant than ever to give our employees the flexibility they need, so they can be at their best to do their best work in a sustainable way.

For example, offering enhanced sick pay — we offer 40 days each year — to make sure no one’s at a disadvantage for missing a day or two in the month is now something employees expect among Euro-centric start-ups, not to mention soon to be a legal obligation in Spain.

Formalising period leave is a great way to allow people to connect their experience with the flexibility that’s available to them. An alternative could be offering “duvet days” where people can take time off, no questions asked, to equally support those who may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences.

Learning

The time I’ve spent proactively learning about others’ experiences helped me understand that not every woman has periods, not everyone who has periods is a woman, and that trans women can have period symptoms too.  

Whether you’re into books, podcasts, or Instagram accounts, there’s something for your learning style out there. Every employee has an active role to play in building inclusive workplaces, so it’s key for companies to empower employees to learn about other’s experiences.

Health support

Getting a health insurance or cashback scheme is a really powerful way for people to get the support they need — from finally diagnosing where the pain comes from, to affording medical operations and followups. 

Take Clare Kelly, global head of L&D at Flo Health, for example. She’s thriving now, both in work and life, but it’s been a journey. She learnt about endometriosis at age 33 through word of mouth, and since her own diagnosis, she’s had four big operations and one emergency hospitalisation in just 18 months. 

What’s more, another common condition called fibroids causes similar pain (ie. significant pain) to endometriosis, and it’s even more common. They affect 30% of us, and Black people are three times more likely to suffer from them

In a nutshell, a lot more people need specialist medical care than we could imagine if we’re not particularly well informed on the topic of periods.

Here’s another super simple way to help: if you don’t have an office, give people a budget to set themselves up in a way that meets their needs. If you have an office, have a period stash. For those who didn’t know it was today, for those who did but just ran out,  and all the others. It’s a small gesture for the company but a big gesture to those who need it. 

“If you don’t have an office, give people a budget to set themselves up in a way that meets their needs. If you have an office, have a period stash”

Our cycles don’t only impact our bodies. They can also impact our minds. 

I’m part of the lucky 8% who gets a free ticket for an intense ride on a regular basis because of my PMDD, and proper mental health support has been absolutely pivotal in building the resilience I need to navigate those challenging phases.

This is but a drop in a sea of the differences we can make as we keep learning and driving change for our people. But isn’t the mighty ocean made of little drops?

Marie Krebs is people experience design lead at Learnerbly. She’s previously shared her experience as a “boomerang employee” on Sifted. Don’t miss Learnerbly’s head of people experience Lauren Gomes at our upcoming Sifted Summit on October 5-6 — get your tickets here.

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Rachel
Rachel

So refreshing to see this being talked about – as a PMDD sufferer every month I have two weeks which are pure struggle. Reassuring to see I’m not the only one and companies can be better set up to support women at the different stages of their monthly cycle.