Periods at work: Conversations in the workplace that need to happen

4 min read
A woman clutches her stomach in pain at her desk

A new survey reveals 85% of UK women feel stressed or anxious when managing their period at work.

Women menstruate at work. Period. It’s not new. It’s completely natural. However, many working women still feel embarrassed, stressed, and anxious when on their period in the office or working onsite.

It’s time to end the stigma around periods and have open conversations about menstruation, both in the UK and around the world.

Nearly two thirds of UK women feel embarrassed talking about their periods at work

Presenter and broadcaster Charlene White explains, "it’s almost ingrained within us to hide when we’re on our period to protect our colleagues, even though half the population experience them every month."

80% of UK women feel they are held back by attitudes to periods in the workplace

It’s not just here in the UK where women have to deal with outdated attitudes at work.

Globally, where women make up 40% of the workforce, women’s health and menstruation are often forgotten by businesses.

Society has never been comfortable or open about menstrual cycles, so women have just kept quiet about it, as though it doesn't happen. We need to start normalising conversation around periods and provide education for all, not just those who experience periods.
Ama Agbeze MBE, netball star and commentator

Nadongo Federesi, a technical supervisor in Uganda, says she doesn’t speak about periods because she is the only woman and worries it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Nadongo Federesi standing hands on hips after examining the functionality of the water pumping system.
Nadongo Federesi, Technical Supervisor, in Buyenda District, Uganda Image: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba
Nadongo Federesi, 28, Technical Supervisor, climbing up the tower to check on the working conditions of the main water reservoir tank in Uganda
Nadongo climbing up the tower to check on the working conditions of the main water reservoir tank Image: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

"Most women fear speaking about proper menstrual management at work, yet they are expected to work at full capacity. If a lady is not feeling well due to menstrual cramps or any other period related weakness, they should be given a break from work until she feels better."

Nearly half of UK women have hidden their period products en route to the toilet at work

A similar number, 46%, said they avoid light-coloured work outfits whilst on their period.

Ama Agbeze MBE, netball star and commentator, recalls, "at test matches, I’ve had to navigate getting to a bathroom whilst subtly carrying sanitary products with a crowd of thousands watching."

In Liberia, school principal Augusta explains how she would call in sick from work as a teacher when on her period, worried it would show.

If you were unlucky and got a stain on your clothes the men would say you are dirty.

On the first and second day of my periods, I would experience a heavy blood flow and cramps, so I couldn’t go to work. I preferred to tell school that I was sick and will stay away.
Augusta, 57, principal of the Judy Zinser Memorial School

Now, as principal, she has started teaching menstrual hygiene awareness to erase taboos around menstruation in school.

Augusta, principal of a school in Liberia, smiling and holding period products
Augusta, 57, principal of the Judy Zinser Memorial School in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia.. Image: WaterAid/ Stanley Sinatue/ WASH R&E

With many young girls missing school during their period – up to 1 in 3 in South Asia – education about menstrual health is so important.

Only 3% of UK women believe employers are doing enough to support women who menstruate at work 

Unsupportive management is a major cause of stress for women. The women we asked said that free period products, flexible working and additional breaks could help.

Dr. Roomana Sheraz, a dental surgeon and the only woman in her department in Thatta, Pakistan, recalls how difficult it was before her workplace built a women-friendly washroom.

I struggled a lot. I couldn't go back home during the day, and not having an accessible washroom was a significant problem. I couldn't share my challenges with male colleagues, which made it difficult for me to manage my period at work.
Dr. Roomana Sheraz, a dental surgeon in Thatta, Pakistan

Two years ago, Dr. Sheraz became a menstrual hygiene champion after completing training from WaterAid Pakistan.

Businesses and governments need to be bolder

We're calling for menstrual health and hygiene to be recognised by governments and businesses around the world so that no one, wherever they live work or go to school, is held back because of this natural process.

Gender equality simply cannot be achieved without prioritising the needs of women and girls – and access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene is critical.

Learn more about our menstrual health and hygiene work