Menstrual health and work
There has been significant progress in recent years in breaking the taboo around women’s health in the workplace, from fertility and maternity through to the menopause. Could menstrual leave be a new frontier of women’s rights at work?
In a European first, Spain is proposing to pass a new law offering menstrual leave as part of a wider set of proposals around reproductive health. Whilst this has been welcomed by menstrual health campaigners, others fear that such a move could be counterproductive for women’s inclusion in the workplace.
Spain’s period pain proposal
- Leave: If passed, the law would allow those who experience severe period pain to take three days of sick leave a month, rising to five days in exceptional circumstances. This would be subject to the production of a medical certificate. It remains to be seen whether a new medical certificate will be needed every time someone wants to use the leave, which could see some having to present new documentation to their employer every few weeks.
- Sickness: The leave is not intended to apply to those with mild symptoms. However, it does not seem to be restricted to medical conditions such as endometriosis, so would apply to severe symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.
- Pay: Menstrual leave will be paid. Generally in Spain, paid time off for sickness starts from the fourth day. However, menstrual leave would be paid from the first day. It will also be paid for by the state rather than the employer.
Period policies in the UK
If the law is introduced, Spain will set a high benchmark for other countries looking on. And with the growing awareness around other issues that were previously taboo in the workplace like the menopause, individuals may feel more empowered than ever to seek support and challenge employers.
So how can employers foster a culture of inclusion and support menstrual health?
Engage with the workforce. Although well-meaning, a policy for menstrual leave may not always be the right solution. Some warn that such policies risk perpetuating gender stereotypes or downplaying the seriousness of certain conditions.
Consulting with employees beforehand will help to expose potential issues early on and inform decisions on policy. It may also increase the success of any eventual policy roll-out.
Consider your language. Periods can be experienced by women, non-binary and trans people so employers should consider inclusive language within any policy.
Maintain privacy. People may feel uncomfortable disclosing their menstrual status, in particular non-binary or trans people who fear that doing so may ‘out’ them at work. Careful consideration should be given to how disclosure can be made confidentially and in a safe space.
Raise awareness and run training. It is important to combine the introduction of menstrual-related policies with raising awareness. Employers will likely see a low uptake of any menstrual support if individuals think they will face repercussions, so it’s vital that managers are on board and internal messaging is supportive.
Educating the workforce will also help to open the conversation and challenge stigmatisation. Some managers will be unfamiliar with the range of symptoms associated with menstruation, such as migraines, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea, or the debilitating effects of associated disorders like endometriosis. It may well be that those who are suffering with their symptoms require sick leave or other accommodations beyond menstrual leave. By increasing understanding around these issues, employers can help to ensure that individuals receive the right support.
Consider alternatives. Some people won’t want to take leave and will instead prefer to be supported through their period at work. Alternatives like hybrid and flexible working may prove more popular.
Other avenues include normalising sick leave for severe menstrual pain. Broadening the wording in sickness policies to include severe menstrual symptoms and associated conditions sends a message to the workforce that period pain is not taboo and you do not expect staff to work while they are unwell or in pain.
Be alive to the risks. Given the growing case law around menopause-related symptoms amounting to a ‘disability’, it is conceivable that certain individuals could establish that they are in fact disabled providing their menstrual symptoms are long term, substantial and affect their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It may only be a matter of time before we start to see cases on menstruation before the tribunals.
If an employee is unwell because of their symptoms, consider whether any adjustments to their working arrangements can be accommodated.
The challenge will be finding a solution that works for both the organisation and individuals, enabling everyone to contribute and thrive in an inclusive work environment.