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Pads, painkillers, and unpaid leave: The hidden costs of periods

Wed 18th March, 2020

Reviewed by: Dr. Vamsee Thalluri

Let’s get one thing straight: no two periods are ever the same.

For some of us, a light bleed once every six weeks is “normal”. For others, enduring a week of cramps and crippling back pain might be pretty common. Whatever your cycle looks like, the physical and financial costs of menstruation are too often dismissed as just another burden women need to carry.

But how do you know when something isn’t quite right? In this post we’re going to cover:

● What is normal (and not so normal) when it comes to period pain

● The issues of accurately diagnosing abnormal menstrual conditions

● Why women are keeping quiet about period pain in the office

● How much you’re likely to spend on menstrual products across your lifetime

● Where you can access The Pill (without having to pay a visit to your GP)

The challenges of menstrual pain

When it comes to periods, many women aren’t taught how to tell the difference between normal (and not so normal) menstrual pain. In fact, a recent study of over 5,000 young Australian women reveals serious knowledge gaps exist around what causes pain, how to treat it, and how to identify problematic menstrual symptoms. This research (the largest of its kind anywhere in the world) shows many young women can be suffering through painful or uncomfortable conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, or vulvodynia in silence, believing their pain is “normal” and nothing to complain about.

But this lack of awareness is just the tip of the iceberg. Menstrual pain, heavy, and irregular periods are common, with 90% of young women surveyed experiencing period pain (with 20-25% citing painkillers as providing no relief).

Another recent Australian study reveals 88% of young women (16-25 y.o.) are suffering from dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation and abdominal cramps). Interestingly, just 33% of women reported their symptoms to their doctor, choosing instead to consult friends, family, or online resources for advice.

Fear is a key factor that prevents women from seeking professional medical advice. As cramps and pain are common during that time of the month, these symptoms are normalised. Defining just how bad our pain is can be difficult, making it hard to convince doctors and GPs that our discomfort is something to pay attention to. For many women, the challenge of self-reporting pain to a dismissive medical professional is an all too difficult hurdle to cross.

This practice of women being told that their pain is normal is often referred to as “the gender pain gap”, a broad term encompassing the negative outcomes women experience as a result of a lack of knowledge about diagnosing, treating, and managing menstrual pain.

Period pain and the workplace

Cramping, bloating, and crippling pain can be a monthly battle for many women. However, the idea of speaking up and sharing your struggles with others can be a challenge. It’s no wonder that studies indicate up to 20% of women’s daily routines are negatively impacted by painful menstruation. Whether it’s calling in sick to work on a regular basis, or enduring hours of endless cramping at the office, suffering professionally as a result of menstrual pain is all too common.

The shame that exists around periods in the workplace means women often hide their symptoms from managers and colleagues.

To avoid appearing weak, sick, or unable to cope under pressure, impacted women often pretend they’re suffering a cold or flu rather than admitting to experiencing period pain.

The stats back this trend up, with a recent study by YouGov revealing just 27% of women felt comfortable enough to cite period pain as a factor impacting their ability to perform at work.

So, what does this all mean for women in the long term? Aside from the daily struggles of sitting through meetings and conference calls during a bout of cramps, the loss of productivity coupled with the need to take time off can lead to women being overlooked for promotions and pay rises at work. In fact, some research has shown women on average lose nine days of productivity at work every year due to period pain (that’s nearly one day every month).

Although pioneering Australian not-for-profits are pushing hard for companies to introduce paid menstrual leave programs, there’s still a long way to go until the issue is fully addressed by many workplaces.

Counting the costs: pain relief, pads and contraception

Unfortunately, the costs of period pain don’t stop at the office. Think about everything needed to get you through a monthly cycle. There's the tampons and pads (or menstrual cups and period underwear if that’s more your vibe), packets of painkillers, birth control, and those much-needed extras that make getting your period that little bit better (like a block of chocolate and a heat pack).

Once you start doing the maths, it’s not hard to see how women are spending thousands on managing painful periods every year. Across a woman’s lifetime, it has been estimated that she will spend upwards of $19,000 on period paraphernalia. But the news isn’t all doom and gloom. In January, 2019, the 10% tax on sanitary products in Australia was scrapped after a decade-long campaign. This was a massive win for women, with all states and territories listing tampons, pads, menstrual cups, maternity pads, and leak-proof underwear as exempt from GST.

However, one of the biggest financial burdens for women is accessing contraception. Although Aussie women have had access to birth control since 1961, women still need to receive a prescription from a doctor to access the oral contraceptive Pill (one of the most popular types of birth control).

The ongoing costs (and inconveniences) of booking in for an appointment to see a GP costs women both time and money, even costing the country over $96 million annually in health costs. Clearly, something needs to change when it comes to the way women access birth control.