Martha Hrdy

Prioritizing menstrual health in the workplace

April 4, 2023

The menstrual cycle is often just seen as “lady problems” that occur once a month. In reality, it is a continuous biological process experienced by many people of all genders that has a great effect on the individual, their work and their life. 

Simplifying the menstrual cycle to reflect just the time of menstruation—or when one gets their period—ignores the effects that hormone fluctuation has on one’s physical well-being, energy, productivity levels and overall social health. 

The four phases of the menstrual cycle—the menstrual phase, follicular phase, ovulation phase and luteal phase—occur in a continuum that is roughly a month long. 

The menstrual phase is the most widely-known in culture, as it is the phase that includes the notorious period. Symptoms from this phase include, but are not limited to: cramps, fatigue and irritability, according to Healthline

Still, it is not well understood that each phase of the menstrual cycle has specific effects on the body and one’s ability to participate in a job or schooling. 

Among U.S. employees who menstruate, 45.2% reported missing an average of 5.8 days of work in the previous 12 months due to their menstrual cycle, and 94.6% said they did not have any benefits or programs in the workplace environment that might help with issues related to their menstrual cycle, according to a 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine

Individuals who menstruate must be equally supported in the workplace and school environment. However, the lack of science backing menstrual health, the continuous taboo around menstruation and the nature of the common 9-to-5 work schedule inhibit a full understanding of the struggles these people face. 

The working world must become a place that is more educated and considerate of the menstrual cycle and its effects. Everyone would benefit from accommodating working practices and conversation to be more cooperative and inclusive regarding the menstrual cycle. 

At the smallest level, the work day operates on a 24-hour cycle, which falls in line with the hormonal cycle of testosterone. As a result, testosterone is highest in the morning and decreases throughout the day, resetting every 24 hours with very minimal fluctuations, according to a Sept. 6, 2022 LinkedIn article

The menstrual cycle, however, operates on a roughly 28-day continuum with hormones increasing and decreasing at different rates. This results in differences in productivity, mood and motivation, according to the article.

Though there are a multitude of hormones with specific functions in the hormone cycle, the ones with the most impact are estrogen, progesterone and, surprisingly, testosterone.

Each hormone has effects on mood, energy and productivity that do not follow the 24-hour work cycle. The month-long cycle can result in significant differences in attributes valued in the workplace, such as mood, energy and productivity day-to-day and week-to-week, according to an Oct. 7, 2022 article by Jolene Brighten, a naturopathic physician and women’s hormone specialist.  

Though I am aware that it would be an unfair and sadly unrealistic for all employers to operate on this 28-day long cycle, I believe it is possible to enact changes in the working world that will allow for more equity for those who menstruate. 

The first is to remove the shame and avoidance of talking about menstruation. Though this seems like a lofty goal, American culture is already moving in that direction. 

A total of 87% of American adults agreed that struggling with a mental health disorder is not something that is shameful, according to a May 1, 2019 American Psychological Association article

If we can talk more openly about mental health struggles like anxiety and depression, hopefully we can feel comfortable sharing the mood and energy fluctuations, along with the physical symptoms, that accompany the menstrual cycle. 

It is also important to educate people of all genders about the menstrual cycle. 

We may all remember the puberty talk we had in our elementary or middle school health classes, but teaching hormonal health—from testosterone to progesterone to the process of menstruation—will facilitate a better understanding in individuals who menstruate and the adult community as a whole. 

There should also be a federal law regarding paid sick time for menstruation. 

Although there are 14 states that have passed laws regarding paid sick time, there is no federal law that protects and assures paid sick time within the workforce, according to a Jan. 5 article from the Center for American Progress. 

Individuals who menstruate may need monthly time off as symptoms can range from mild to strong enough to prevent normal life activity for a short period of time. 

Showing up to work in extreme pain and discomfort is not only harmful to the individual but is also unproductive towards their work, as they will not be able to feel their best or put their best foot forward regarding the work that they complete. 

These changes would allow for increased equality and allow people who menstruate to feel more accepted and valued in the workplace. 

On another note, there is a movement in the world of holistic medicine called “cycle syncing” that suggests changing lifestyle habits to be more in line with the phases of one’s menstrual cycle, according to a Feb. 8 Healthline article.

The habits include specifics within the categories of nutrition, exercise, productivity and sex. 

Cycle syncing elaborates on the intensity level of exercise through the menstrual cycle phases in a way that best aligns with an individual’s various hormone levels at that point. Specific types of foods, like sprouted and fermented foods that metabolize estrogen during the follicular phase, are recommended during each of the phases, according to the article. 

Despite claims that cycle syncing will optimize many aspects of the monthly health of menstruating individuals, there is not much science about cycle syncing beyond the fact that hormone fluctuation does cause changes in mood, energy, appetite and sleep, according to a May 10, 2022 Forbes article.

Science-backed or not, cycle syncing isn’t exactly doable in the work world today. 

The work world continues to operate on a 24-hour time period, with the weekends usually acquainted with downtime, and workers are often expected to show up each day and each week at peak productivity, meaning that productivity fluctuations on a monthly-timed basis is not always feasible in the workplace. 

In addition, the world in general poses so many distractions—the stress and business of daily life, for example—that leave an individual who menstruates to be out of touch with their cycle until they get the unpleasant and uncomfortable side-effects. 

If more studies are done on the potential benefits of engaging in habits that align with the menstrual cycle phases, it would be beneficial for menstruating individuals to take part. 

Changing the structure of the working world is achievable, especially because a large number of careers have moved to hybrid or work-from-home models. 

In other words, it is possible for many individuals to make their own schedule in a way that includes different periods of various productivity levels within the monthly cycle. 

Increased menstrual awareness in the working world does not begin in the work environment, it begins with the health education that is taught beginning in pubescent years. 

Providing an education from a young age about menopause and the menstrual cycle would also be beneficial as the workforce inevitably ages and menopause becomes a reality for every menstruating individual. 

The workplace is just one environment in the lives of individuals, but it is one that is extremely prominent. 

Menstruation is a natural and constant part of life. Despite the pain, fatigue and overall discomfort it causes, the menstrual cycle is a truly miraculous process. 

And it’s here to stay, along with periods and all the symptoms that come with it.

So, for the benefit of all workers, menstruating or not, the workplace needs to change into a more educated, conscious and understanding society when it comes to the menstrual cycle.

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