Menstruation is a natural physiological process experienced by approximately half of the world’s population. Despite its universality, employers often overlook or do not understand the far-reaching implications of periods at work. Here is a look at some of the issues employees often face repeatedly.
First, while some people pride themselves on being extremely regular with their periods, it is critical to recognize that this is not the case for most people. Periods come unexpectedly, individuals do not always have supplies on them, and occasionally they simply forget or do not realize they do not have what they need in a bag or desk.
A survey by Free the Tampons found that 86% of people have started their periods in public without the supplies they needed. What does that look like in reality?
- Workers rushing around to colleagues asking if they can help.
- Immediately leaving work to buy what is needed. Free the Tampons found 34% immediately go home.
- Possible bleeding through clothing, causing shame and embarrassment.
For some people, bleeding can be heavy. Frequent trips to the restroom, fear of leaks, and discomfort associated with managing menstrual flow can cause anxiety and distraction, impacting work performance.
A large-scale study in the Netherlands found that nearly 81% of the respondents reported “presenteeism” (being present at work but functioning suboptimally) an average of 23 days per year, resulting in almost nine full days of lost productivity. When workers may already feel discomfort, pain, headaches, or any of the many potential symptoms of menstruation, worrying about finding menstrual products can be an additional stressor.
The Movement to Create Menstrual Equity
The movement to create “menstrual equity” is gaining traction and the attention of a younger generation that seems less willing to be treated unfairly. If half the population can find all they need in the restroom to manage basic, healthy bodily functions, it is reasonable that all should be able to do so.
Schools nationwide are beginning to recognize the need for student support as there is ample evidence of lost education due to a lack of pads and tampons in schools. Girls Helping Girls. Period. was part of the advocacy team that helped push the New Jersey legislature (June 2023) to pass a bill that will mandate all school bathrooms (6-12th) have period products by the start of the 2024 school year.
The Impact of Menstruation on the Workplace
Policies in the workplace are changing across the United States and the world and often include:
1) Providing menstrual products: Many employers now offer free or subsidized menstrual hygiene products in restrooms to ensure their employees have easy access to necessary supplies. Kyle Huntsberry is a co-founder of Milk, Honey, Soul, a hair salon where pads and tampons are neatly arranged in cute containers in the bathroom for anyone to take.
“Providing sanitary napkins and tampons honestly just feels like human decency. It is our honor to provide this basic necessity, and it is not lost on us that for some to have this provided for them may ease the financial burden, which furthers our mission of inclusivity, providing a basic need to those who may not have equal access.” ~Stephanie Lopez and Kyle Hunstberry, co-founders of Milk, Honey, Soul.
2) Flexible working arrangements: Some companies allow employees to work from home or offer flexible working hours to accommodate menstrual symptoms or the painful side effects associated with conditions, including endometriosis and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). These policies recognize that period-related symptoms should be treated as those of any illness, and allowing individuals to manage their pain or discomfort privately is not only compassionate but effective.
3) Wellness programs and resources: Employers have started incorporating wellness programs that address menstrual health and provide resources, such as educational materials, workshops, and access to healthcare professionals who can provide guidance and support.
A program that offers a free menstrual cup to staff, as well as providing support in learning how to use it, is not only a smart, progressive idea, it is potentially a cost-saver (to the business and the employee) as it can reduce or eliminate the need for an individual to need disposable menstrual products. Girls Helping Girls. Period. offers workshops that teach and support anyone wishing to try a menstrual cup. If you’d like more workshop information, reach out!
4) Menstrual leave policies: While still relatively uncommon in the United States, some companies and countries worldwide have introduced menstrual leave policies that allow individuals to take time off work without fear of repercussions or loss of pay.
Hesitation to offer free menstrual products in their bathrooms
This phrase is well-cited as the most dangerous phrase in business, and yet it singularly defines why menstrual products are not widely available. Toilet paper is available in every restroom because workplaces, schools, and public spaces were designed by and for people who do not get periods.
Several factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as a generation insisting their employers reflect their values, are forcing a public conversation on menstrual equity. Girls Helping Girls. Period. is working with schools, governments, and employers to examine the positive effects of doing things in a new way.
2. They don’t understand usage.
Here is what surveys and anecdotal evidence shared by product companies have shown:
- Many people have menstrual products they prefer, and even if provided with a free item, they will opt to use one they have chosen.
- People take menstrual products when they need them, much like they do toilet paper. They may take an additional item to place in a desk or bag if they realize they do not have any backups.
A British company found that the 560 women employees took about 3000 pads and tampons in a three-month trial. Over the course of a year, we could project each employee would average about 60 items.
When schools and companies first put menstrual supplies in restrooms without charge, usage is considerably higher than it is about three months later. We like to say tampons are like granola bars in the breakroom. Employees may take a few to store in their desks until they see that there is no need to do so.
The more spaces we create that meet all the basic needs of all the people, the less concern there will be for taking excess.
3. They may not realize the human cost of not providing free period products
The people who work for companies are humans first, employees second. They deserve to have their basic needs met while spending so much time in the workplace. Employees are critical to a business’s success, and just as programs to provide free period products send a message that a diversity of talent is welcome, not providing them sends a loud message, too.
The simple act of providing free pads and tampons can contribute to an employee becoming an ambassador of the workplace.
Alicia Karlberg is membership manager at TSTI in South Orange, NJ, where free period products have been available in the bathrooms for several years. “I feel that our health and wellbeing is taken into consideration. It’s something that is just provided. As a woman in the workforce, they have removed another barrier for me to be productive.”
Her colleague, Lauren Byers, who oversees family outreach at their preschool, is proud of what her workplace stands for in general. Free period products in all-gender bathrooms are a perfect example. “It feels so inclusive, not just for me, but for everyone. We are living our values to welcome anyone and provide a safe space for anyone to just be.”
4. Concerns about cost
Menstrual products are expensive, but those costs are for private use by individuals. When essential products, like toilet paper, are purchased in bulk from industrial suppliers, they are much less costly. Estimated costs for providing period products in staff bathrooms are $5-10/employee/year, depending on the type and quality of products. And in many cases, the cost is much less after dispensers are purchased.
Menstrual Product Cost Guidance
The bottom line is that after the dispenser itself, pads and tampons will cost an employer approximately $5-7 per employee per year. Dispensers run a wide range, depending on the product type, how many they hold, how many bathrooms, etc.
In a place of business with bathrooms serving staff and guests, the cost of offering free pads and tampons can be as little as a few hundred dollars a year to a few thousand. Response from those who have not even necessarily taken an item from bathrooms where Girls Helping Girls. Period. has placed free products, along with a survey, including:
“Seeing this made me feel so welcome…”
“It’s such a small thing, but feels so thoughtful.”
“This was a lifesaver. Thank you!”
Rather than asking if you can afford to add free period products in your restrooms, perhaps the better question is to ask if you can afford not to.