Paid and unpaid menstrual leave policies have been debated for years. Whilst some countries have instituted paid period leave policies, the UK is yet to implement such legislation. There are however companies that have incorporated menstrual leave to their workplace policy.
Does Menstrual Leave Work?
Small business Coexist, a social enterprise offering a community venue for offices, artist studios and event spaces, offers its female staff period leave.
Pioneered by Director Bex Baxter, Coexist’s Menstrual Policy makes adjustments to accommodate their employees’ cycles to improve wellbeing among staff. Bex sees menstrual leave as a basic human right, and believes the policy does wonders for encouraging employees to live and work at their optimum.
“I have managed many female members of staff over the years and I have seen women at work who are bent over double because of the pain caused by their periods. Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not class themselves as unwell.
And this is unfair. At Coexist we are very understanding. If someone is in pain – no matter what kind – they are encouraged to go home. But, for us, we wanted a policy in place which recognises and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.
This is not about employees taking more time off but working more flexibly and efficiently around their menstrual cycle and encouraging a work-life balance.”
The policy is choice based, and days off are not mandatory. It is described as ‘menstrual flexitime’, a smart policy model similar to ‘flexible working’ that ensures all working hours are accounted for, removing anxiety around a woman’s ‘time of the month’. This type of work flexibility leaves little room for the argument that classifying menstruation as something deserving of its own category of staff absence draws a wedge between those who suffer and those who don’t.
Coexist does not worry about people in their company deceiving them for time off, as in line with their ethos at trust, all members of staff respect the business and give more than 100% to their work on a daily basis. Watch Bex Baxter’s interesting TED Talk on the taboo of menstruation in the workplace to understand more.
Coexist is not the only UK company taking this approach. Believe it or not, Nike has had menstrual leave written into their Code of Conduct since 2007.
A global company, wherever Nike operates the code of conduct is implemented regardless of whether the country has the act of legislation or not. They bind their business partners to the same principles with a signed Memorandum of Understanding. A more formal type of gentleman’s agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding guarantees that contractors comply with Nike’s codes.
Perhaps a policy and supporting legislation is what’s needed, perhaps it isn’t.
What is necessary, however, is greater education on the subject.
Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for period pain. As a muscle, when the uterus contracts and relaxes during cramping it can feel like a painful stomach ache or intense muscle spasming - some women have reported pain feeling as bad as a heart attack. Along with menstrual cramps, common symptoms include sweating, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhoea, headaches and fainting. Emotional stress usually accompanies period pain, made worse by anxieties at work and fear of judgement over it interfering with daily activities.
To make matters worse, women are suffering from underlying medical conditions linked to painful periods, such as endometriosis, which affects 1.5 million women in the UK and takes an average of seven years from onset of symptoms to get a diagnosis.
With all these symptoms, why is it that women often feel unable to speak openly about menstrual cramps? It’s fair to say that when feeling unwell in any other capacity, being honest with an employer is not an issue.
How Are Women Affected In The Workplace?
A survey conducted by Bupa in December 2017 aimed to learn more about how women feel when working on their period. Of the 2,000 women surveyed at the time, 23% admitted to taking time off work because of their period in the previous six months, with 36% not telling the truth about why they were unable to work. Half of the women surveyed admitted they were not comfortable talking about their period as a reason for time off and 67% agreed that they would be honest about their symptoms if their boss was a female.
As a taboo subject, it can be argued that for many people - particularly for men – talking about the issue can be uncomfortable. Due to the stigma surrounding periods, society seems to think of menstruation as a problem that only women need to worry about. As a result, some men know very little about the menstrual cycle, which leaves them unprepared and ill-equipped to engage in conversation about it.
To an extent this is understandable, men are unable to identify with and relate to menstruation, but this only makes the case for attention on the subject more important.
Naturally - a number of gynaecologists aware of how serious the matter is, and how crippling the pain can be - have spoken publicly to try to raise awareness on the issue. London-based consultant gynaecologist Dr Gedis Grudzinskas called for employers to introduce menstrual leave in 2016, stating ‘I don’t think women should be shy about it, and companies should be accommodating with leave for women who are struggling with painful periods.’
The case for menstrual leave is compelling and it can’t be denied that women deserve the right to take time off work when suffering to such an extent.
Yet sadly the facts remain that most UK companies don’t have menstrual leave policies in place. For this reason, it remains crucial for employers to ensure they are approachable, compassionate and willing to an open dialogue where women don’t feel too ashamed, embarrassed or anxious to talk about their condition. Change is a two-way street and for there to be any positive development on the matter, the responsibility falls not only on employers, but on employees to be forthcoming in upfront and honest conversations with their bosses.
The sooner we engage with discourse that ends the stigmatisation of menstruation, the better.