Periods, Productivity, and the Path to Progress
Posted by Mehr Singh on October 30, 2023
In modern workplaces, productivity is often the yardstick by which success is measured. Yet, beneath the layers of spreadsheets, deadlines, and meetings, lies an aspect of productivity that despite affecting on average over 50% of the workforce, goes often overlooked: the menstrual cycle. For many individuals, periods aren't just a monthly biological occurrence; they represent a recurring challenge that impacts their ability to perform optimally at work. While the corporate world buzzes with talks of work-life balance, ergonomic chairs, and mental health breaks, the conversation around menstruation and its implications for workplace productivity falls short.
Let's look at the stats
A Dutch study published in 2019 conducted a nation-wide survey among 32,748 women to assess productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms. Below are a summary of the key findings and stats that emerged.
Absenteeism: 13.8% of women reported missing work due to their menstrual periods, with 3.4% indicating absenteeism during almost every cycle. This results in an average of 1.3 days of absence annually.
Presenteeism (which refers to the lost productivity that occurs when employees are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury, or other condition): A significant 80.7% of women experienced decreased productivity while at work over a mean 23.2 days per year.
Total Productivity Loss: An average productivity loss of 33% during 23.2 days of presenteeism + average loss of 1.3 days of absenteeism = a mean of 8.9 days of total lost productivity per year.
Flexibility Desires: 67.7% of respondents expressed a wish for more flexible working conditions, including altered tasks and working hours, during their menstrual cycle.
Another study conducted in 2022 among US employees that use the Flo app found that 45.2% of users reported absenteeism, equating to almost 6 days off in the previous year due to menstrual issues. This study did not take into account days lost due to presenteeism, indicating the total productivity loss is likely much higher.
These studies and the experiences of women show that consistently, we see that most either lose productivity or are absent from work as a result of their menstrual periods.
But also, the stats are entrenched in bias
The statistics are glaring: menstrual symptoms undeniably influence productivity. However, while these numbers are revealing, capturing the full spectrum of menstrual symptoms and their effect on quality is obscured by a broader medical and societal oversight – the gender pain gap.
The gender pain gap refers to the documented disparities in how women's pain is perceived, treated, and managed compared to men's. Research consistently shows that women are often treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the healthcare system until they "prove that they are as sick as male patients." A particularly troubling finding is that women wait, on average, 16 minutes longer than men to receive pain relief in emergency settings. Furthermore, in a 2001 landmark study, researchers found that women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed, and were more likely to have their pain characterised as “emotional,” “psychogenic” and therefore “not real.”
The data we rely on is deeply entrenched in the lived experiences of women. These experiences, however, are clouded by generations of bias and misunderstanding. Many women have been conditioned to downplay their pain, leading to a consistent underreporting of the true extent of their menstrual discomforts. As a result, the real impact on both quality of life and productivity is likely much higher than stats will show.
Is period leave the answer?
The topic of period leave has people polarised. At company, national and global levels, people are torn between whether such a policy would be progressive or counter-productive for women in the workplace.
For those who believe period leave should be implemented at an organisational, if not national level, recognising the unique physical and mental needs of employees is at the heart of their argument. Proponents argue that because men and women are built differently, the same rules cannot apply. Moreover they believe that providing leave can ensure that when an individual returns to work, they are recharged. Such a policy also fosters a sense of inclusivity, where the unique health challenges individuals are recognised and respected.
On the flip side, there are concerns that implementing period leave could inadvertently lead to stigmatisation. Critics argue that it could reinforce age-old stereotypes that menstruating individuals are emotionally unstable, unpredictable, or generally less competent than their peers. In workplaces where team dynamics are crucial, period leave might be viewed by some as preferential treatment. This perception, albeit based on a measure meant to promote health and well-being, could foment resentment or divisions among staff.
Additionally, from an economic standpoint, there are worries about potential productivity losses. Some argue that if a significant portion of the workforce takes regular leave, it might impact the bottom line of businesses. Ironically, according to the studies conducted, this productivity loss already happening. For example, a recent study of 2,000 women in the UK estimated that overlooking women’s health in the workplace could potentially cost the UK economy an astounding £20.2 billion annually.
So what's the solution?
Finding a solution that accommodates the unique challenges menstruating individuals face, while ensuring that economic productivity is maintained, requires a multifaceted approach.
Menstrual Neuromodulation Therapy: This innovative approach involves using devices that modulate brain activity to alleviate PMS symptoms and menstrual pain before they commence. By directly addressing the root cause of pain or discomfort, neuromodulation can prevent the debilitating effects of menstrual symptoms, enabling individuals to work without hindrance. The future of supporting women in the workplace might look like organisation-wide initiatives that subsidise this treatment option.
Digital Tracking Apps: Apps such as Flo and Moody Month have shown promise in empowering women to track, predict, and manage their menstrual cycles. With predictive insights, women can practice "cycle-syncing", a framework that empowers women to live their lives in a way that optimises energy, productivity, happiness, and relationships in relation to their menstrual cycles. It advocates rest during luteal phases and higher activity during ovulation, for example.
Open Communication: One of the most critical yet overlooked solutions is promoting open dialogue between employers and employees. Encouraging honest conversations about menstrual symptoms can help in devising strategies to manage workloads, offer flexible schedules, or even provide supportive amenities. This fosters a work environment where employees feel seen, heard, and valued.
The conversation surrounding menstruation and its impact on workplace productivity is not merely essential—it's critical. Periods aren't just a biological function; they impact an individual's efficiency, mental clarity, and overall workplace contribution. Innovative solutions like neuromodulation offer a glimpse into a future where menstrual challenges don't hinder productivity. Still, these solutions are only as effective as our collective willingness to recognise and address the problem. Discussing menstrual health transcends gender—it impacts organisational productivity, the broader economy, and the collective health of societies worldwide. Periods and productivity are inextricably linked, and it's time our workplaces reflected that reality.
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