Ask Alto : What is menstrual leave and should your HR policies consider it?

October 11, 2022
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In May 2022, the Spanish cabinet approved a menstrual leave law – the first of its kind in Europe. The bill still needs to go through parliament but if it passes muster, people suffering from painful periods will be entitled to a minimum of three days of menstrual leave per month.

Other countries in the world have legislation like this - Japan, China, Indonesia and Zambia are examples. And the idea has history: the Soviet Union introduced a national menstrual policy in 1922. But it’s still rare in many global economies, including the United States.

What is the thinking around menstrual leave?

The idea of introducing these policies is spreading in some countries that haven’t traditionally offered support for menstruating employees, the BBC reports. One of those countries is Australia where businesses are looking for ways to retain their talent, and where leave is seen as a desired perk that may help keep workers loyal and engaged.

The interest in menstrual leave is also linked to broader cultural shifts around reproductive health and gender equity. As an example, LoginRadius (a company which offers cloud-based consumer identity and access management software) has just announced a menstrual leave policy in its India offices. The announcement encapsulates all the good reasons to make such a move: “The company joins a small group of companies in India that believes that the menstrual cycle shouldn’t be a taboo subject and also feels that it’s important for women to have a healthy work-life balance”. Rakesh Soni, CEO of LoginRadius, is quoted as saying: “We are going the extra mile to create a more equitable environment and become one of the most female-friendly workplaces in the country.”

Why might people need it?

Siobán Harlow, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says that 15 to 25% of people who menstruate will experience moderate to severe menstrual cramps. 10% to 15% of menstruators will have pain that’s not very well-controlled with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and some people have conditions including endometriosis or uterine fibroids that exacerbate pain. Others suffer from very heavy menstrual bleeding. All of these can make getting through a working day difficult.

Time reports that a 2017 survey of 32,748 women in the Netherlands found that 14% had taken time off from work or school during their periods. Others said they had shown up even when they were in pain, struggling to work while enduring their symptoms, leading to what researchers estimated was an average of 8.9 days of lost productivity.

What’s the upside for employers and employees?

The advantages to women, transgender and non-binary workers who menstruate are clear: they would have time to rest when they need it most and be happier and more productive at work as a result.

Those benefits would all be good for employers too. When Modibodi, a period-underwear company in Australia introduced 10 days of paid period leave, Kristy Chong said there was increased trust among managers and workers. “By supporting women with these policies, you empower them to actually want to be at work and to put their best forward.”

Are there any downsides?

Yes, there are.

Non-profit online information hub Menstrual Matters says global evaluations of employment policies from the past several decades have consistently shown that gender or sex-specific policies (no matter how good their intentions) end up harming the very people they aim to help.

That happens in a number of ways:

  • Menstrual leave policies can reinforce the sexist stereotype that people on their periods are irrational, emotional, and essentially incompetent.
  • Depending on the confidentiality rules around period leave, employees might also find themselves dealing with the discomfort of a manager who’s aware of their monthly cycle. That’s okay for employees in a culturally permissive-enough environment but in other circumstances may avoid taking leave due to the associated “shame and stigma”, she says, or the idea that it could stymie their careers.
  • Many people suffer from chronic pain or illness of some kind and may feel slighted by leave policies that apply to menstruation but not to other issues.
  • People who are trans or non-binary may not have revealed this at work: claiming menstrual leave would force them to out themselves.

What can employers do that would really help?

Menstrual Matters suggests that companies start with menstrual health literacy. Employers, employees (and their doctors) should all have access to high-quality information about menstrual health. In addition, leaders can work on these steps:

1. Rethink sick leave : All workers (regardless of gender) should be able to take short-term sick leave without it counting against them in any way. When employees are going to be out of office for a short time, it’s also best if companies don’t require people to disclose what the underlying problem is.

2. Provide free ‘emergency’ period products (e.g. tampons and pads), anti-inflammatory medication and heated pads or hot water bottles : Give employees access to a quiet space to rest until mild to moderate symptoms have improved. “In the case of severe cyclical symptoms, employees should be supported and encouraged to access quality medical advice and treatment options, as soon as possible.”

3. Provide adequate rest breaks: For workers who menstruate, being able to take a break is important, but all workers would benefit from better working conditions. Rest breaks have been shown to decrease the likelihood of workplace injury or illness, as well as improving productivity and efficiency.

4. Flexible working arrangements: most people only need a relatively short amount of time to rest/ manage menstrual symptoms before being able to return to work. So, being able to work from home (if applicable) or take time out for a portion of the working day is better than having to take a whole day off.

The trick (as with all diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives) is to identify the needs of marginalised groups and to design policies for all employees that take everyone’s needs into consideration. That way, policies help everyone and do not accidentally make colleagues or employers feel any (more) resentment towards people who menstruate (or any other marginalised group).