Why is there a foosball table in the recreational room and beer in the pantry but no machine dispensing free tampons or pads in the women’s toilet at many workplaces?
It is no wonder that a recent study in Singapore found more than half of the women surveyed are compelled to lie to bosses when it comes to having period pains.
The survey, commissioned by local period care brand Blood, was conducted in September 2021 on 1,000 women participants between the ages of 18 and 55.
The majority of those surveyed revealed that period pain affects their lives regularly, with 1 in 3 citing both physical and mental impacts. This has implications for workplace productivity.
For example, close to 1 in 4 respondents shared that they suffer from extreme period discomfort that is so severe it derails their daily lives for a few days every month.
When asked if they felt discriminated against or ridiculed in the workplace when experiencing their menses, about 3 in 4 reported having experienced some form of period shaming in the workplace, either through bullying, isolation or “time of the month” jokes.
One in 3 Singaporean women felt that there is not enough empathy from colleagues in the workplace during tough periods. Regardless of age, sadly the majority said they go to great lengths to hide their sanitary products at work.
As a result, close to half of the women admitted to regularly taking time off from work to avoid awkwardness in the office during the time of the month. Of those, more than one in two lied about their reasons for absence to avoid ridicule or discrimination.
Sadly, 2 in 5 felt no one would believe them should they call in sick due to period pains, which is why they choose to lie — and also because “presenteeism” (showing up in the office ) has been traditionally favoured over absenteeism.
“We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to openly talking about something that is a natural part of being a woman,” says Ms Tan Peck Ying, Co-Founder of Blood.
Having had her own bad run-ins with several menstrual cramps, Ms Tan was inspired to start Blood (then named Pslove) in 2014 to create game-changing period care products inspired by real people with real period problems to lessen the pain, discomfort and stress for all those who bleed.
“My cramps were so bad that it not only hindered my daily activities but I also had to call on my friends for help on multiple occasions when I almost fainted. It turns out that there are many others like myself,” she says.
Are period-positive workplaces truly within reach?
Ms Tan is optimistic. When employees show concern for their co-workers during their period and not make degrading comments, these are already great first steps, she says.
When it comes to period-related sick leave, however, implementing policy changes may not always be so straightforward. “Many times, as employers, we tend to overthink and over-weigh the pros and cons when it comes to implementing new policies,” says Ms Tan.
She cautions against using one-directional top-down approaches to implement period-friendly corporate policies.
“With co-workers and managers being a large part of our work environment, they can certainly make an impact on period positivity,” she says. “It is important to communicate to the team and align on the principles behind it.”
One crucial point of alignment, for example, could be looking at period pain just like any other health condition, instead of something gender-specific. Just as is the case with migraines, fevers, colds, any employee may or may not encounter such ailments and require rest, depending on severity.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is the name for the symptoms some women experience before their period and these include mood swings, feeling anxious or irritable and tiredness. Headaches or cramps ahead of or during menstruation are also common. but each person’s symptoms are different and can vary from month to month. This, in turn, is not “carte blanche” for women to act bad and blame menstruation.
As it turns out, period-positivity would benefit employers as much as employees. Based on the study, it is estimated that an average of 5.8 million working days are lost unnecessarily to periods annually across the nation.
As opposed to taking leave, 7 in 10 respondents shared that they’d rather have the flexibility to choose where and how to work on period days, as compared to taking an MC unnecessarily — but that cannot happen if periods remain taboo.
Include men in the conversation
When respondents were asked if women are more empathetic about period pain in the workplace, almost 3 in 5 said yes.
Interestingly, when adding hierarchy into the mix, the responses became more equal, with female bosses fairing only marginally better than their male counterparts.
“I would like to think that contrary to popular belief, men, in general, can be pretty sensitive to such topics, especially if they have loved ones — wives, sisters, spouses, or friends — going through it. Leveraging that empathy and extending it to the workplace can help bridge the awkward gap, if any,” says Ms Tan.
“Perhaps sometimes [women’s] feelings of embarrassment are self-imposed. So I think the first step is really to just be open, and allow men into the conversation,” she says. “We should expect that men may not be as informed and sometimes may make comments that mean no harm — but that’s when we’ve got to address it and just keep on educating.”
On the need for quality menstrual education
While the majority of respondents cited learning about their periods from their mothers, over a third first learnt about their periods either at school, from friends, or from the internet.
In fact, 15 percent of respondents shared that they do not feel comfortable talking about periods with their own mother or daughter, and would instead turn to their friends or the internet if they had questions.
This not only reveals glaring gaps in menstrual education in Singapore’s public education system, but is also likely correlated with periods being such a taboo — or even a matter to be blended with humour, for lack of better-taught ways to broach the topic.
Ms Kathy Gabriel, co-founder of Seva Seed, a non-profit organisation that focuses on menstrual education both locally and in underprivileged communities overseas, says that menstrual education is not just for pubescent girls who have just gotten their periods for the first time in their lives.
“There’s this misconception that it can only happen at a certain age, and then there’s very little conversation around it after,” says Ms Gabriel, pointing out that women get their periods way into their 40s or 50s, and the nature of their periods also change across their lifetimes.
One key misconception about periods, even among women, is that every woman’s period should come after 28 days exactly — but in fact, period cycles can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days, depending on hormone changes.
“Our hormones are constantly changing from day to day, not just every 28 days when our periods arrive. It’s everything between our stress hormones to our sex hormones, and we don’t talk about any of these hormonal assumptions,” she says.
Other environmental or genetic factors also play a part in a woman’s menstrual health and cycle, such as race, religion, class, and education level.
To help push companies in a period-friendly direction, Ms Tan and the team have launched a “Period Positive Workplace” initiative. Business leaders who sign up will receive a digital playbook, packed with real-life anecdotes from working women in Singapore, tips from the research study, as well as practical advice that target both employees and employers.
They will also receive period pantry kits, which will contain sanitary pads, liners, and heat packs.