Menopause and Menstruation Explained
Menstruation, often referred to as a "period," is a natural physiological process that occurs in individuals with a uterus and typically begins during puberty. It is part of the menstrual cycle, which is a series of hormonal changes and physical events that prepare a person's body for pregnancy.
Perimenopause, often simply referred to as "menopause transition", is the period of time leading up to menopause. It is the stage during which a woman's body undergoes gradual changes in hormone production and begins to prepare for the eventual cessation of menstruation.
From there, menopause is a natural biological process that marks the end of a person's menstrual cycle. It is defined as the absence of menstruation for a year after a person's period ceases. It typically occurs in women in their late 40s to early 50s (who are white) but can vary in global majority of people, with teenagers also going through menopause as well as those who experience chemical menopause due to a variety of menstrual health factors. During menopause, a woman's ovaries gradually produce fewer reproductive hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone. This leads to various physical and emotional changes which can vary from mild to debilitating.
During their life, women may also experience or be diagnosed with menstrual conditions such as Endometriosis and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Both conditions can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life, and they may require medical treatment or management.
What Does The Workplace Look Like?
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there were 15.66 million women in the UK aged 16 and over in employment from October to December 2022. The number of women in work was 108,000 more than the same period a year before but 1.7 million higher than the decade before! More and more women are entering the workplace, be it full-time or part-time but the question is, are employers accommodating their female workforce's needs?
New standards have recently come into play, the BSI recently published a revolutionary new British standard. BS 30416 aims to provide all workplaces with guidance on how they can adequately support their employees who menstruate and experience menopause symptoms. “As a result, organisations are beginning to recognise the need for a level of consideration when it comes to menstrual and menopausal health. However, uncertainty on knowing the approach to take has often led to inaction.”
You may have also seen that Spain just passed Europe’s first paid ‘menstrual leave’ law. The bill approved by Parliament on Thursday is part of a broader package on sexual and reproductive rights that includes allowing anyone 16 and over to get an abortion or freely change the gender on their ID card. The law gives the right to a three-day “menstrual” leave of absence - with the possibility of extending it to five days - for those with disabling periods, which can cause severe cramps, nausea, dizziness and even vomiting.
To gain deeper insights into the experiences of both female, male and non-binary employees navigating menopause and menstruation support provided by employers, and the perspectives of female and male (including non-binary and trans) employees we quizzed over 1,000 UK workers with the aim of uncovering prevailing opinions regarding menopause and menstruation in the workplace to determine whether, in 2023, it remains taboo to talk about natural bodily functions.
We also spoke to Nic Ponsford, CEO & Founder of the Global Equality Collective and who was involved in the development of the BSI Standards Publication Menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace – Guide to get her thoughts and opinions on our research.
What Is The Female Workforce Experiencing?
The survey first asked those who identified as female to share which of the following statements they believe;
● 35% believe that they are currently going through menopause
● 34% believe that they have not gone through menopause
● 25% believe that they have gone through menopause
● 5% believe that they have a condition that affects their menstruation (Polycystic ovary syndrome, Endometriosis etc.)
● 1% believe that this does not apply
The UK workforce is home to female workers going through varying stages in their lives. With a pretty even split across the board, it’s evident that there’s a need for education and awareness of how to support the effect that menopause and menstruation have on a female workforce. A common misconception is that menopause primarily affects older women, even though this is true for most women. Our survey revealed that of those who reported going through menopause, the most popular age range was 35-44 followed by 45-54 and 54+.
What Impact Is Menopause and Menstruation Having on Work?
It’s common for women who have gone through menopause to continue experiencing symptoms for several years after their period ends. Medical menopause can occur earlier due to surgery such as hysterectomies, chemotherapy or hormonal treatments.
Perimenopause is also a factor to consider for employers, as this is the time leading up to menopause when female employees may still experience symptoms of menopause before menopause actually occurs. Varying stages of menopause and menstruation continually affect the lives of female workers, as such, we asked survey respondents if they felt that going through menopause or dealing with menstruation impacts their work.
A third of females surveyed shared that it positively impacts their work, whether going through menopause has given them a new lease of life or menstruation makes them feel like they can tackle anything, it seems that the female staff force isn’t letting anything get them down!
However, 31%, shared that they believe it negatively impacts their work. Fluctuating temperature, pain, unbalanced hormones, sleep deprivation and nausea are just some of the symptoms that female workers may be dealing with. Enough to put anyone off their work, menopause and menstruation can have substantial impacts.
28% shared that they feel that menopause and menstruation have no impact on their work and a small 4% shared that other people’s menopause and menstruation impact their work.
Is It Too Taboo To Talk About?
Although menopause and menstruation are natural biological processes, there is still a social stigma attached to them. Even though females make up a large proportion of the UK workforce and most of them experience or have experienced menopause or menstruation, talks about the two still remain taboo. We asked our survey respondents if they feel comfortable talking about menopause or menstruation with their employer and or colleagues.
Unsurprisingly 32%, almost a third of females surveyed, shared that they only feel comfortable talking about menopause and menstruation with other female colleagues.
An admirable 23% shared that they are open and feel comfortable talking to anyone about the two.
Over 1 in 5 women don’t feel comfortable talking to anybody at all about it.
19% shared that they feel comfortable talking to their colleagues but not their employer and 3% feel comfortable talking to their employer but not their colleagues.
Although 21% of respondents shared that they don’t feel comfortable talking about their period or menopause, we wanted to know if they felt that there should be more conversations about menopause and menstruation in the general workplace.
The decision was quite split. 28% believe that we should fully embrace menopause and menstruation talk in the workplace and be open about it. Alternatively, 28% shared that we should talk about it, but only to an extent as not everyone wants to talk about it. Another 22% believe that we should be more open about it, but only with other female colleagues.
19% believe that it is a private matter that should be kept private. It seems that even in 2023, some workplaces still haven’t created a culture and safe space in the workplace for females to easily and confidently talk about natural things happening to them.
Employers Need To Offer More Support
Workplace culture is changing. From diversity and inclusion to mental health and wellbeing, employers need to do more than ever to support the wide needs of their team. We asked our female respondents to share if their employer supports female staff with menopause and menstruation in their workplace.
28% of female employees believe that their employer supports them but could do more and a shocking 19% believe that their employer doesn’t seem to support menopause or menstruation at all. A small 3% even reported that their employer makes work harder for them when dealing with menopause or menstruation.
23% believe their employer supports menopause and menstruation but is too accommodating.
Over a fifth of respondents believe that their employer fully supports female staff going through menopause and or menstruation.
We also quizzed male respondents to uncover whether they think their employer is doing enough to support menopause and menstruation.
29% of male respondents believe that their employer supports menopause and menstruation but could do more with 18% sharing that their employer completely supports both.
9% of respondents revealed that they believe their employer supports menopause but is too accommodating, 3% feel that their employer doesn’t support menopause or menstruation, with another 3% believing their employer actually makes it harder for those going through menopause or menstruation.
Free Period Products For Employees Are Hard to Come By
We delved deeper, asking survey respondents to share what their employer is actively doing to help support their female workers who are experiencing menopause and or menstruation.
30%, almost a third of respondents, shared that their employer allows them to work from home with 26% sharing that their employer would allow more flexible working hours. 28% also shared that their employer is relaxed when it comes to their dress code policy. Only 19% shared that they believed their uniform was suitable (dark-coloured and or breathable fabrics).
Our previous research into neurodiversity in the workplace also revealed that 24%, almost a quarter, of neurodiverse workers were being given the choice to work from home as a way to support them at work. Employers need not only to think about gender but also other characteristics when it comes to menopause and menstruation. “There is emerging research into the neurodivergent experience of menstruation and peri/menopause. Some evidence shows that menopause can pose significant challenges for some autistic employees and exacerbate the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” Reports the BSI.
Shockingly, only 27% of respondents reported that their employer offers free sanitary products and only 3% shared that they have access to painkillers or medication.
When it comes to facilities, only 20% shared that they have suitable decor such as dark office chairs, just 23% have access to drawers or locker spaces for personal belongings and only 23% reported having access to sanitary bins in all female, unisex and disabled toilets. It can be more difficult for a disabled employee to find the right menstrual products or a suitable accessible toilet to meet their needs.
A lot of these practices are super easy to implement and support your team with, most of which with little to no cost. If you’re re-decorating or switching up your dress code, why not consider darker fabrics? Big-name employers such as Tesco already do this! You can also consider becoming a period-positive workplace, with sanitary product subscription services through brands such as Totm which help ‘champion period comfort, well-being and dignity in your workplace.’
Symptoms Range From Hot and Bothered to Calm and Confident
We asked our female respondents if they would share the symptoms of menopause and menstruation.
Ranking as the most common symptom, over a third of respondents shared that fluctuating temperatures affected them most.
It might be worth noting that The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations cover a wide range of welfare issues that organisations are required to address, such as ventilation, temperature, drinking water and facilities for rest!
31% shared that they suffer from pain and discomfort and blood loss or low iron levels.
29% of workers suffer from headaches and 28% experience tiredness and insomnia.
Over 1 in 5 female workers also experience dizziness, brain fog, stiffness, nausea, changes in their mood, bad memory or concentration and lowered confidence.
21% shared that they suffer from depression and 23% suffer from anxiety.
Only a small proportion of workers shared the positives of going through menopause and or menstruation, with 6% sharing that they have increased confidence, 4% reporting lighter periods and less stress from PMS and 3% claiming that their hormones are more balanced.
Not only are females having to deal with personal symptoms but blockers in the workplace too.
42% of males surveyed revealed that they have had to deal with changing or fluctuating emotions amongst their female colleagues, with 22% reporting that they have missed deadlines or been unable to do work when working with menstruating or menopausal colleagues.
14% shared that they have had problems with room temperature control when working with menstruating or menopausal colleagues. A small 11% of men shared that female colleagues having time off work or using sickness due to symptoms had also had an impact on them.
Female Workers Often ‘Caught Short’ at Work
A shocking 48% of respondents shared that they feel like they have to conceal or hide sanitary products from colleagues to take to the toilet. It seems female workers are going to great lengths to hide a tampon or pad from co-workers to avoid ‘embarrassment’.
39% of respondents reported that they have faced situations where they have been unable to dispose of sanitary products properly whether that's a lack of bins or shared bathrooms where those who may choose to use a menstrual cup are unable to remove it and clean it properly.
39% also shared that being too hot at work has left them feeling unable to concentrate, sweaty and or uncomfortable at work.
38% shared that they have previously had to deal with accidentally stained clothes or chairs.
37% have missed a deadline and or meeting due to symptoms while 35% shared they have had to take time off work or use their sick days due to the severity of their symptoms.
Free tea and coffee are easily made free and available at work but what about sanitary products? 35% of respondents also shared that they haven’t had access to sanitary products when they’ve been caught short at work. With 21% of respondents sharing that they don’t feel comfortable talking about their period, it puts female employees in a rather difficult situation.
More Than Half of Female Workers Feel ‘Held Back’
We asked our respondents if they felt that they had ever been held back or might be held back by menopause or menstruation at work.
In contrast to their male counterparts, a whopping 57% of women believe that they have or might be held back at work.
35%, over a third, feel like they ‘somewhat’ have been or may be held back.
Only 7% believe that they haven’t been held back by their menopause or menstruation with 2% reporting as unsure.
What About Male Employees?
Our survey also aimed to uncover male opinions on menopause and menstruation in the workplace. First, we asked respondents to share if they feel that female colleagues going through menopause or menstruation have an impact on their work.
28% shared that they believe it impacts their work sometimes, with 18% sharing that it doesn’t impact their work at all.
17% shared that they think their female colleagues’ menopause and menstruation impacts their work vastly.
26% shared that it doesn’t apply to them, possibly working in male-dominated industries where they have no immediate contact or employment with female colleagues.
We also posed the same question to male workers as we did earlier with female respondents. We asked our male survey participants how comfortable they feel talking about menopause or menstruation with their employer and or colleagues.
It seems that male colleagues are open and receptive to discussing menopause and menstruation with an admirable 35% of male respondents sharing that they feel comfortable talking to anyone about it.
23% shared that they feel comfortable talking to their colleagues but not their employer, 11% would talk to their employer but not their colleagues and a small 9% shared that they don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it.
Male participants also shared their thoughts on whether they think there should be more conversations about menopause and menstruation in the workplace.
38% shared that they believe there should be more conversations but only to an extent as not everyone wants to talk about it.
29% believe it’s normal and natural and that we should all be more open about it.
11% believe that menopause and menstruation talk is better left between female colleagues to discuss, with another 11% believing it’s a private matter that should be kept private.
A Note From The Experts
We spoke to experts from organisations who were involved in the development of the BSI Standards Publication Menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace – Guide to get their thoughts and opinions on our research.
CEO & Founder of the Global Equality Collective
Nic Ponsford is a key contributor to the BSI guide and an expert in women's health and a passionate advocate of Menstruation, Menstrual Health, and Menopause in the Workplace Guide (BS 30416) addressing the challenges faced by women, trans, and non-binary individuals in the workplace. She shared her thoughts on the research;
'Inclusion in the workplace has never been so necessary. Ensuring that our largest growing demographic of people feel welcomed and wanted through this huge life change is not only ‘good to have’, it is ethical and humane. This research illustrates the importance of putting people at the heart of our vision and policies - in order to create opportunities for all, rather than excluding key parts of our workforce.'
You can find the Global Equality Collective on social media @GECCollect
Do you feel that your employer is doing enough to support menopausal and menstruating colleagues? Are you the workplace period champion? Let us know your thoughts on social media by using #instantprintuk!