Ending A Workplace Taboo. Period.
In March 2016, the social enterprise I work for made headlines across the world. Coexist, barely known outside the local community in Bristol at the time, runs the iconic arts and community space Hamilton House on Stokes Croft. What provoked the media frenzy was the decision to implement a period policy, allowing staff optional time off when their periods are affecting their experience of being at work.
Some people argued that this represented a huge step forward for women workers, in that it removed the stigma of talking about periods and acknowledged the impact that these have on women’s physical and mental health. Others argued that it was a retrograde step — that it legitimised the idea that women were less capable or productive than their male counterparts and somehow required different treatment. And then there was the army of online trolls gorging themselves on any article that mentioned the policy, arguing that it discriminated against men and represented a takeover by a shadowy feminist cabal, designed to undermine men and upend the traditional workplace.
With the period policy now having been trialled by the Coexist team, we thought it would be a good time to revisit it, explain its origins, and explore its potential in transforming workplaces and making them more adaptable to staff wellbeing.
The idea of the Pioneering Period Policy initially came about through the work Bex Baxter, a former Coexist director and People Development Manager. Bex, who has experienced severe period pains for much of her adult life, was determined to bring a greater awareness of the impact of periods on female staff into the workplace. In an event hosted by CoResist — one of Coexist’s partner organisations — Bex helped to facilitate a public seminar together with Alexandra Pope, a psychotherapist, menstrual awareness educator and co-author of the recently published “Wild Power”. Following this, Bex began putting together a policy which would bring consciousness of the menstrual cycle into Coexist, working with Lara Owen (a longtime menstrual activist and the author of “Her Blood Is Gold”) and with significant input from women staff. (Since its creation in 2008, Coexist has been a predominantly female workplace with a current workforce of 13 women and 7 men.)
Around half of menstruating staff members now make use of the policy, either by leaving work early, making up time at other times of the month, or working from home. More importantly, many staff members have begun tracking their cycles by using diaries or apps. Getting to know their cycles can help women plan around the more difficult times, as well as planning for meetings and events, and this is what we see as being absolutely key to making our policy work: menstruating staff knowing their cycle and working with it. In a broader sense, this empowers women to take control of their work and their health. For example, our Front of House team, which is made up entirely of women, have begun organising their shift patterns around their cycles and have created a contingency agreement to accommodate staff needing time off.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I don’t possess a uterus of my own, so many aspects of the period policy are somewhat academic for me. But questions about how male members of staff feel about the policy often crop up, so it’s worth addressing directly. In my day-to-day role, the policy has little impact, and I certainly harbour no feelings of resentment towards my co-workers for being able to take additional time off. In fact, the opposite is true: being able to speak openly about periods, as well as the related issues of mood, energy levels, physical and mental health, actually makes for a more open office atmosphere. There is less taboo attached to the obvious fact that we all have our good and bad days at work.
This leads on to another important fact: while the period policy is first and foremost geared towards the needs of women specifically, it is underpinned by a philosophy of creating workplaces built around the ‘natural cycles’ of all workers. What this means is accepting the fact that everybody, regardless of gender, experiences peaks and troughs of energy and mood, and if we acknowledge this, we can find better ways of maximising our energy when we’re at our most productive. This ethos, of a workplace built on the principles of flexibility and trust, means that it has been easier for me to approach my line manager to have conversations about my own tendencies towards depression and anxiety and the ways that these can affect my working life, for example.
While detractors will no doubt take issue with elements of the period policy, either the language that is used to talk about it, or the way that it is implemented, it needs to be seen in a wider context. At a point when capitalism is in crisis, job security is increasingly a thing of the past for many, and mental health problems are reaching epidemic levels, Coexist’s attempt to create a more compassionate, flexible and nurturing workplace culture represents an attempt to challenge the status quo, which by and large [retains a masculinist ethos], increasingly bludgeons workers with longer and longer hours and is run on the assumption that purely quantitative metrics can be used as a measure of productivity. The Pioneering Period Policy should therefore be seen as an attempt to bring about systemic change in our local community, a process which is being mirrored internally, in the ways we listen and look out for each other and work together.
The creation and impact of the policy is being studied by Lara Owen for her PhD research at Monash University in Australia. The results of this research will be available later in 2018.
Coexist Facilitates would like to help other organisations to implement their own Menstrual Policy, offering a tailored package of support to enable any business or organisation to develop policy to suit their individual needs. If you are part of an organisation that you feel could benefit from breaking the menstrual taboo at work, please get in touch for more information:
0117 924 9599
Coexist Facilitates is a platform that supports and nurtures a community of change-makers and facilitators. Drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources, the common thread that connects all of the work is a passion to help inspire a fairer and more fertile future for people and the world in which we live.
Over the next 12 months we will be working in an international partnership with Ecodharma and the Ulex project in Spain who are a European leader in embodied faciliation practices. The work we offer aims to reconnect people to each other and to the natural world deepening these relationships in order to inspire leadership and responsibility for the emerging future.
We use embodied practices to help build awareness and a wide range of creative and practical tools that allow complex issues to be explored from new perspectives.