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Menstrual leave: a controversial issue… with an easy fix?

Menstrual leave has been back in the news recently. Although common enough to be legislated for in some countries, notably Japan, it’s a controversial concept. The idea that women could or should be allowed “extra” sick leave when experiencing difficulties – normally pain – with their period has had some serious pushback, and for what we think are good reasons (more on that in a moment). But is the fact that there’s even debate around menstrual leave revealing, and is there a straightforward solution? And, if the latter is true, why haven’t we just adopted said solution?


What’s the debate?

Menstrual leave is exactly what it sounds like: a type of leave that women might take when menstruating leaves them unable to effectively work. That some women might need occasional time off due to their periods is really beyond doubt (at least to anyone we’d give credence to). That this time off is somehow less legitimate than any other necessary recovery time is not an idea we’re going to lend credibility to either. Nobody likes letting their work pile up or letting their colleagues down. Women aren’t going to take leave unless they absolutely have to.

So some women might require time off for a perfectly valid reason. Why the controversy? Well, there are several cogent reasons to be sceptical about menstrual leave. For one, women are already stigmatised for their biology. Menstruation isn’t a disease, and labelling it as such is a hallmark of sexism. And anything that separates or re-genders women in the workplace can have negative consequences on their opportunities and success: it’s been revealed that Japanese women rarely use their menstrual leave because they fear being labelled infirm or a liability. It’s hard to imagine menstrual leave not simply stigmatising women. An added difficulty is that the subject remains taboo. Menstrual leave makes public a part of women’s biology that they might prefer to keep private.


Why do we need a different sort of leave?

If you’re thinking that there’s a simple solution to this, then we agree. Menstrual leave is rendered unnecessary by a properly robust and empathic sickness policy. If you’re too unwell to work effectively – for whatever reason – then you should go home and recover.

A useful (albeit broad) comparison would be mental health. The concept of taking a sick day to support or preserve your mental health has got a fair amount of traction recently, but most mental health organisations warn against creating a separate designation of leave solely for mental health. A huge part of the destigmatisation of mental health issues is focusing on the “health” part rather than the “mental” aspect – teaching people that’s it’s entirely valid and worthwhile to look at their health holistically and not focus on classification. The charity Mind advises that “creating a distinct category such as ‘mental health sick days’ could undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

The taboo aspect of periods shouldn’t complicate a simple solution, because again a sickness policy that addresses the issue in terms of overall health is enough. If you have a condition that’s likely to result in repeated or regular need for sick leave then you should be able to discuss this and come to a solution with your employer (a flexible working policy that allows for occasional remote working would go a long way to address this #justsaying). Your sickness policy doesn’t have to make a big deal out of it, simply mentioning that menstrual issues are an accepted reason for taking sick leave would address the problem entirely (we’re fairly sure that if men had periods this is the solution that would already be in place, like, everywhere).   

If, as a business, your view is that staff should “power through” and come to work in all but the most extreme circumstances, then… well, we would guess that you don’t have a great understanding of what actually drives productivity in your workplace. Unwell people don’t do great work. Distracted people are less productive, and the more time they take to recover, the longer that drop in productivity lasts. Don’t even get us started on people who come in while they’re still contagious. Don’t be coughing and sneezing at work, Steve. We’ve got a lot on right now, we don’t need your cold slowing us down. Go home and get better.

So there’s a simple answer to this question already. Why are we still having this debate?


Why we still need to talk about periods (but not necessarily at work)

A decent sickness policy removes the need for menstrual leave, but a couple of serious issues persist. The first is that, unfortunately, the majority of working women around the world are unlikely to see this kind of benefit in the near future. The women who are most likely to struggle with their periods while at work – especially those who don’t have easy and cheap access to the appropriate supplies – are the least likely to see a sympathetic and well-thought-out sickness policy that levels the playing field.

The second problem is that, even in cultures with more developed legislation to protect and benefit workers, sickness policies are often either sub-par or tacitly undermined by the actual culture of the business. The best-designed sickness policy in the world benefits nobody – male or female – if management subtly let it be known that using what you’re entitled to will damage your chances for advancement.

The solution to the first issue is to work hard to end period shaming and make sure that women get the support they need. Activists, health organisations and companies trying to do just that still get pushback – feminine hygiene brand Thinx ran into trouble not over the artistic use of innuendo in their ads but simply the use of the word “period” in their copy – but there are smart, taboo-busting companies and charities popping up around the world.

The solution to the second problem? Do it the right way, and dare the world to keep up with you. This is one of those situations best rectified by leading from the front. We strongly believe that companies that create genuinely supportive sickness policies will be rewarded for doing so: with more satisfied employees, better employee retention, and fewer sickness-related absences overall (because Sneezin’ Steve stayed home, so none of his team got sick).

At Juggle we vet the working cultures of the businesses we partner with, to make sure that they meet the standards that our flexible professionals deserve. We will continue to find businesses that are doing it right, and we’ll continue to shout about them. Here are our tips for what your business can do to make a taboo subject a non-issue:

  • Create (and revisit when appropriate) a well-structured and empathic sickness policy. Mention that repeat conditions can be discussed in a supportive environment, and mention period pain among the list of examples.
  • If you haven’t already, consider a robust flexible working policy with the opportunity for remote working. Giving your employees autonomy of environment lets them manage their own health so it rarely becomes an issue.
  • Keep free menstrual care products in the office, make sure everyone knows about them and replenish them as part of your regular supplies audit. Sign this petition to get your first free sample from “period subscription” company myFreda.

There is a LOT to do when it comes to de-stigmatising periods; it’s something that we should all be thinking about and working on. But the simple, non-stigmatising things that can minimise the effects of this stupid taboo? We should do just get on with them.

Nothing controversial about that.  

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