Concept for - Menstrual health at work – what action should employers take?

It’s over 10 years since the first World Menstrual Hygiene Day on Tuesday 28th May – the significance of which is to break taboos surrounding menstruation and raise awareness of the importance of good menstrual hygiene management worldwide.

Why is menstruation a work issue?

Recent research has found that only a third of women would feel comfortable discussing menstrual health with their line managers and almost a quarter of working women have considered quitting due to the impact of menopause or menstrual symptoms at work. For more information on the menopause at work and what action employers should take, you can read our article on the topic here.

The symptoms associated with menstruation vary from person to person but may include:

  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Physical discomfort
  • Tiredness through sleep deprivation
  • Poor concentration

We recently had similar conversations at Stephens Scown with other B Corp businesses about women’s health in the workplace, which provided some invaluable insights and highlighted the importance of having such conversations in the workplace.

You can find a clip of the episode here.

What can employers do to support menstrual health at work?

Take a proactive approach

  • In helping their employees manage their periods to support employee wellbeing and gender equality in the workplace. This could include training for managers to work towards creating an open and supportive culture, and ensuring easy access to medical advice for those experiencing severe symptoms or who may need medical intervention.
  • Employers may find it useful to refer to a new standard to support employers on managing menopause and menstrual health, BS 20416, published by the British Standards Institute with input from large employers such as BT and Morrisons, along with unions, health and safety bodies and charities. This advises on good practice recommendations and is a helpful practical toolkit.

Update policies

  • Ensure policies are in line with best practice. The general consensus is that managing periods can be adequately dealt with in existing sickness absence and health and wellbeing policies.

Practical measures

  • Practical measures – good access to bathroom facilities; free sanitary products; offering time for additional breaks and a quiet space for employees to rest, particularly for those who are required to undertake physical activity or stand for long periods of time.

Company culture

  • Encourage and shape a culture of respect, empathy and inclusion for menstruation, through webinars and workshops, or by providing free resources through channels such as the company’s intranet.

Flexible working

  • Employers should be open to employees adjusting their work pattern on the days that they are experiencing menstruation symptoms, if feasible, such as by offering the employee the opportunity to work from home and/or flexible hours.

Employees now have a right to make a flexible working request from day one of employment and can make two requests within a 12-month period. Employers are required to consider these in a reasonable manner including consulting with the employee about their request, for more information please see our article on flexible working.

Legal reasons for treating this issue seriously

The Equality Act

Menstruation is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, however, the Equality Act seeks to protect employees against discrimination.

Areas that may be relevant when dealing with an individual’s menstrual health while at work may include:

Sex discrimination

The detrimental treatment of an employee relating to their periods could represent direct or indirect sex discrimination.

A claim could also be made for harassment on the grounds of sex, for example if someone makes inappropriate comments about menstrual health.

Disability discrimination

Under the Equality Act a disability is “a physical or mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day-to-day activities”.

Period pain is not specifically covered under the Act, but has started to be examined in case law (see below). It is useful to bear in mind that for a menstrual condition to be considered a disability, cases are likely be tested on severity and frequency of symptoms for the purposes of disability.

If found to be a disability, employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help their employees manage their symptoms while performing their role to the best of their ability. Such reasonable adjustments are discussed earlier in this article, such as amending policies and practical measures such as improving the facilities within workplaces.

Recent claims relating to menstruation at work

Cultural stigma, shame, a lack of understanding from those in positions of responsibility and poor education about periods can make some employees vulnerable to humiliation and indignities at work, including discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Examples of this in recent case law are as follows:

Ms C Douglas v The Clancy Group of Companies [2021]:

The claimant in this case suffered with irregular and painful menstruation, experiencing discomfort, nausea and feeling faint. She struggled with severe pain in her pelvis, back and legs and suffered with fatigue. Occasionally, she would struggle to wash or eat. The symptoms affected her normal day-to-day activities both at and outside the workplace. She was prescribed pain-killing medication for these issues. Her work, sleep and mental state were all affected.

She brought the case against her employers for her dismissal as an apprentice due to a few instances of poor timekeeping and a period of absence due to her menstrual issues.

Her claim for discrimination arising from disability was upheld and she was awarded over £15,000. 

Miss D Gare v Oakdale Care Homes No.2 Limited [2023]:

The tribunal reached a unanimous decision that the claimant was a victim of unlawful discrimination because of something arising in consequence of her disability, endometriosis, when she was dismissed. The Claimant had been open about her condition and the employer had information on it, including by way of a Risk Assessment document detailing that she had severe Stage 4 Endometriosis, which would cause severe pain relative to her menstrual cycle. The tribunal concluded the level of pain would be sufficient to impact her day-to-day activities to a substantial adverse degree.  The Respondent had failed  to demonstrate that the dismissal was a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim.

Such cases highlight the importance of treating those who menstruate with dignity and respect to support them in managing their symptoms while at work. Ms K Reilly v RT Management Bridgeton Ltd [2022]:

In this case, the following conduct was found to be harassment on the grounds of the claimant’s sex:

  • Failure to provide a sanitary waste disposal bin in the toilet on the premises, requiring the claimant to walk through the premises with used sanitary products to dispose of them.
  • Comments made by another employee to the claimant that she was the only female of menstruating age who used the toilet on the premises regularly.
  • The claimant was required to walk through the premises, in front of customers, carrying used sanitary products to dispose of them which she described as ‘really humiliating’.

If you would like to discuss workplace policies around menstruation at work, how our Employment Law team could support training for your managers or any other employment matter including where you have been experiencing issues with your employer due to menstruation, please get in touch.