More than a million women keep period sick days a secret

Woman suffering with period pain at work. (Getty Images)
New research has revealed more than a million women are keeping period sick days a secret. (Getty Images)

Just when you think we've made strides in tackling period stigma, we find out that more than a million women are taking secret menstruation sick days because they don't feel able to tell their boss the real reason for their absence.

The research, part of the Bupa Wellbeing Index, found that one in eight (13%) women have taken time off work in the last 12 months due to symptoms linked to periods, but a third (35%) gave a different reason when requesting time off.

Almost half (47%) of women who have periods experience severe period pain most months. However, just a fifth (19%) have felt comfortable enough to take a sick day and openly say it was due to their period pain.

Two in five (42%) women push through work despite experiencing severe period symptoms, but commonly report feelings of exhaustion (41%), dealing with the discomfort of period pain (37%), and making frequent bathroom trips due to heavy bleeding (30%).

One in seven (15%) women have even experienced a Public Display of Womanhood (PDW) at work, having visibly bled through their clothes.

Sadly, nearly half (45%) of women don’t feel a period is a valid enough reason to call in sick and around a third feel embarrassed (34%) or are concerned that their employer won’t understand (31%).

And even when women do take time off work due to their period related symptoms, many still find it difficult to have open conversations about it. More than a third (35%) of these women take sick leave because of severe period pain but keep it a secret from their employers, using other reasons for their absence instead.

Of course all this adds up to a lack of progress in terms of addressing the stigma surrounding periods, which in part seems to stem due to a culture of silence continuing in workplaces – as 38% of women reveal that periods aren't talked about at all where they work and a third (32%) feel they can't openly discuss their periods while at work.

Periods are still causing girls to skip school. (Getty Images)
Periods are still causing girls to skip school. (Getty Images)

The findings follow a further report, part of the phs Group’s Period Equality: Breaking the Cycle, which found that girls are missing more school or college days due to periods than any other reason – including colds, mental health or truancy.

Despite the introduction of period equality measures in recent years, to improve access to free sanitary products in education settings, periods are causing girls to be absent from school or college for three days a term on average, compared with colds and flu (2.6 days), mental health (1.9 days) and truancy (1.2 days).

This tots up to 54 lost education days over the course of their teen years, the equivalent of 11 whole academic weeks.

Why are we still embarrassed to talk about periods? (Getty Images)
Why are we still embarrassed to talk about periods? (Getty Images)

Too embarrassed to talk about periods

As well as periods physically having an impact on the lives of teenage girls, it seems parents are also still finding it awkward discussing menstruation, with recent research revealing that almost half say discussing the subject makes them feel uncomfortable.

That's something echoed among teachers, with a third admitting to finding period conversations with their students difficult, according to the study, by Always.

As hinted by Bupa's research above period stigma is very much present in the workplace too with a third of men believing it’s "unprofessional" for women to talk about menstruation in the workplace.

Initial Washroom Hygiene surveyed 2000 office workers about all things toilet talk and the results offered some further proof that talking about periods is still very much taboo.

Further research, by the charity WaterAid, found that despite being a normal and vital part of most women’s lives, nearly two thirds (63%) admit to feeling embarrassed talking about their periods at work.

Proving that hiding a tampon up the sleeve is still very much a thing, nearly half (48%) say the conceal products on route to the toilet, and 46% saying they have avoided light-coloured work outfits when on their period.

Only 3% believe employers are doing enough to support women and people who menstruate to manage their periods at work, while 80% feel that they are held back to some extent by attitudes to periods in their workplace.

Experts say tackling period stigma could begin with education. (Getty Images)
Experts say tackling period stigma could begin with education. (Getty Images)

Period stigma

So what's causing this ongoing shyness about periods?

"Period shame is unfortunately deep-seated in our society," explains Dr Shirin Lakhani, cosmetic doctor and intimate health specialist.

"Despite the fact that we live in a digital age in which we have constant access to information at the press of a button, there is still a huge stigma surrounding the issue of period poverty."

Dr Lakhani says menstruation embarrassment is perpetuated by cultural taboos, lack of education and period poverty.

"These stigmas start at an early age and often subconsciously when we see our mother’s hiding their box of sanitary products in the bathroom, at school when girls are taught about periods but boys often aren’t, and as we go through life sneaking out with a tampon up our sleeve when we need to go to the loo to change it."

There are some other reasons we're still not talking about our periods.

"Historically, even mentioning periods on TV has been unpredictable," explains Ruby Raut, CEO and co-founder of WUKA. "Period products were only allowed to be advertised for the first time in 1972, and until 1985 you weren’t allowed to even say the word period."

Though there has been significant progress in the last five years in the menstrual education sector such as blue liquid being swapped for red blood on TV ads, Raut says we still have a long way to go."

Women still don't feel able to talk openly about their periods at work. (Getty Images)
Women still don't feel able to talk openly about their periods at work. (Getty Images)

So how do we get there?

In order to move forward Dr Lakhani says we need to start thinking about encouraging the next generation to view periods as a natural process rather than something that we shouldn’t talk about.

"This will help to break the taboo," she explains. "As will teaching boys the exact same things as girls at school, and of not being afraid to talk about it openly and factually when questioned by children."

Raut agrees that breaking the stigma around period care requires ongoing efforts, starting with education.

"If we are to successfully dispel myths and normalise conversations about women’s health issues in the media and workplaces, we must ensure adequate menstrual health education in schools is delivered to all children.

"Menstruation is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Teaching about the menstrual cycle should include girls and boys emphasising the fact that it is nothing to be embarrassed about."

We also need to talk openly about periods and make it a normal conversation about a normal every day experience.

"We need to say the word ‘period’ without shame and without prejudice, talking about it openly helps normalise the conversation about a normal every day experience," adds Raut. "We need to be inclusive and challenge those who aren’t."

Additional reporting SWNS.

Watch: 'I use my period blood to water my plants to give back to the earth – your menstrual cycle can be magic'