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Period leave: Would it help women in the workplace – or hold us back?

Posted by
Robyn Wilder
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Period lead policies at work may appear forward-thinking, but ultimately will they hold women back? Stylist investigates.

Once, during a heavy period, I leaked on a friend’s reclining chair. I was only 16 at the time, but I still remember the precise feeling of shame and horror in my throat as I realised what I’d done – compounded by the fact that it was a male friend, the chair belonged to his parents and it was made of cream leather.

So I can easily empathise with Alisha Coleman – a 911 phone operator in the US – who leaked during her period twice, at work. What I can’t get my head around is that her company then fired her, saying she failed to “practise high standards of personal hygiene and maintain a clean, neat appearance while on duty”. Coleman has since sued her former employer for alleged workplace discrimination. BBC Newsnight presenter and journalist Emma Barnett shares Coleman’s story in Period, her funny, frank and furious new book about periods, power and shame.

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According to a recent report in the British Medical Journal, women lose up to nine days of productivity a year thanks to ‘presenteeism’ during their periods – the very act of showing up to work, or study, while still feeling the negative impacts of menstruation. Anyone who has silently worked through knee-melting cramps in three pairs of “safety pants” while male colleagues have sloped off home with head-colds knows there’s an odd taboo when it comes to talking about periods at work. There’s an even odder one when it comes to mentioning, outside of mutterings about hormones, that they might affect your wellbeing or, god forbid, productivity.

Barnett says this taboo is “the final hangover from a time which demanded that we should be seen and not heard. It’s symptomatic of how women have been indoctrinated to believe that a natural bodily function is totally abnormal.

“Women fear being seen as weak in the workplace,” Barnett adds. “They don’t say anything about issues they might be having with menstruation. This tacitly reinforces the view that we are less capable during our time of the month.”

“Women fear being seen as weak in the workplace,” says Barnett.

So, what are we to make of period leave – the corporate practice of awarding paid leave to female employees during their period, in addition to standard sickness leave? Nike has famously offered period leave to its employees since 2007. But elsewhere, policies vary. It’s offered as standard in Japan and has been by law since 1947, and is common across East Asia.

Jules McKeen, founder and CEO of postnatal fashion brand Sarka London, is on board with period leave and believes understanding periods at work is key to productivity. “Our ‘compassion charter’ accommodates people’s schedules, whether they’re new parents, have caring needs, or are menstruating or experiencing menopause,” says McKeen. “Everyone we work with is measured on output, not hours sitting in a chair. A day off with a period, a migraine or caring for a child should not cripple a business. If it does, the fault is with the business.”

But wait. Before we all apply for jobs at Sarka London, let’s take a look at how period leave works when it’s not in the context of a deliberately friendly, London-based enterprise. Period leave hasn’t been successful everywhere. Both Russia and Italy entertained but ultimately voted against the idea, in 2013 and 2017 respectively.

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Besides, says Sally King, a leading menstrual health researcher, “every country that currently implements menstrual leave performs badly in international gender equality rankings.” (These rankings measure the difference between men and women, country by country, in terms of health, education, economics and politics.) 

King has spent the past decade evaluating policies like this for Oxfam, Care International and Amnesty International, and is the director of Menstrual Matters, an evidence-based menstrual health website. Indeed, World Economic Forum data shows that “menstrual leave countries” such as Indonesia, Zambia and Chile have the greatest gender pay gaps, suggesting “a relationship between relatively extreme gender inequalities and menstrual leave policies”.

As feminists, it doesn’t serve us to have a policy that covers a small part of the female experience such as menstrual leave, because it doesn’t necessarily cover people who are female but not menstruating, such as trans women, post-menopausal women or women who just don’t have periods. What we need are more involved sickness policies that encompass a broad spectrum of how biology affects our health as people and not just women, better trust in employees and better awareness in the workplace.

“The only employment context in which menstrual leave makes any sense is in a sweatshop or otherwise exploitative situations, where there is no sick leave, or even toilet or rest breaks,” says King. “In this context, taking paid or unpaid leave during menstruation may be preferable to bleeding through clothing, or not being able to access a toilet when urgent. And, in every country that has implemented menstrual leave, women have experienced significant discriminatory employment practices, since it can make ‘all women’ seem like more expensive – or less reliable – workers.”

Period leave remains a thorny topic. Stylist reached out to a broad spectrum of businesses including the National Grid, Sodexo, KPMG and Deloitte for comment on their policies, but received no response. We have to wonder, is that tumbleweed response indicative of where women’s issues are on the corporate agenda? Or is it companies just not knowing where to fall on the issue?

"Women have been indoctrinated to believe that a natural bodily function is totally abnormal", says Barnett.

So what’s to be done? What can be done for Amna*, 32, who has become self-employed in order to save herself the pain and humiliation of dealing with her period-related illness in an office environment?

“I have dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia – or prolonged painful bleeding. For two days of my period, I can’t get out of bed. At work I was constantly flooding through super-sized sanitary pads and tampons, sometimes within minutes. My female manager was understanding, but my colleagues made it obvious my ‘sick days’ were inconveniencing them,” she says. “I’m now being treated with injections normally used instead of chemotherapy for prostate cancer just so I can function. The treatment is to bring about the menopause; I’m still waiting to see if it’s worked.”

Then there’s Helen*, 40, who works in retail: “My periods give me severe diarrhoea, making me run to the toilet up to 15 times a day. I’ve lived in constant shame and fear of accidents,” she says. “People at work have never believed I needed to go to the loo so often, or that I had such long periods. Once I passed out at work from dehydration, and I still remember when my stomach erupted while I was walking up the stairs of a double decker bus – in a skirt – as one of the most humiliating moments of my life.

“It took me blacking out on the Tube to be taken seriously, and I was diagnosed with a prostaglandin sensitivity and an autoimmune illness. Now I’m being treated and am on contraceptives, but I’m 40 – this could all have been cleared up long ago if periods and related health conditions were discussed more openly.”

One thing that strikes me here is that these aren’t your typical period situations: these are health conditions. While – yes, please – I would like two days a month in bed to recover from my uterine distress, and I think that’s perfectly valid, can period leave succeed if it’s used to tar all women’s health complaints with the same brush just because they involve similar organs? After all, pancreatitis isn’t pancreatic cancer, and vice versa.

Dr Nighat Arif, a GP from Buckinghamshire with a special interest in women’s health, agrees that conditions like these are illnesses in their own right and should be treated as such. But, she adds, there is no such thing as a “normal” period. “Menstruation is different for every woman; every woman will experience pain and heaviness at different levels and this will change throughout a woman’s life. Some are more susceptible to pain, or clumsiness, or mood differences. I know women who have been suicidal during their periods.”

Dr Arif feels there needs to be a fundamental shift in how employers understand health in general. “Normal biological processes in women such as pregnancy, menstruation and menopause need to be factored into workplace policies. Often the effects of these can be pathological, for instance if a pregnant woman develops hyperemesis gravidarum [severe nausea and vomiting]. Employers need to be empathetic and look at managing these issues holistically,” says Dr Arif. “I know of workplaces that offer adjusted hours and longer rest breaks to men over the age of 40, thanks to benign prostate hypertrophy – a natural enlargement of the prostate in older men.”

Periods are painful enough.

“Having a gender-specific additional sick leave benefit does nothing to improve menstrual health or working conditions that are intolerable or difficult for people who menstruate,” Sally King tells me. “Regular severe period symptoms indicate an underlying health issue requiring treatment, not a day at home in agony each month. And if working conditions are intolerable for people who menstruate, it’s the working conditions that need improving – there’s no need to blame the female human body.

“What we really need is better menstrual health literacy in schools and workplaces, and medical training – so that women know how to manage mild to moderate symptoms and when to go to the doctor,” King continues. “At work, flexible working practices and not penalising sick leave would help enormously. The option of short-term sick leave, between 30 minutes and two hours, to take medication or have a short rest – not just for women, but anyone with chronic health issues such as migraines, asthma, lower-back pain – or even just tiredness from having young children. Many employers already do this because such practices have been shown to improve employee retention and performance, and to reduce absences, too.”

Of course, one of these employers is Jules McKeen from Sarka London. “Personally, I don’t think my period migraines are any less awful than someone’s vomiting bug. We like to structure people’s employment around what they feel they can manage in their busy lives outside of work. And our experience is that if you treat people decently, the work gets done better and the relationship will be longer term.”

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Last to chime in is Alys Martin, head of people at award-winning tech firm, Zappar. She agrees that a holistic approach is the way forward. “I’d encourage the company to try and create a culture where women could feel comfortable enough to talk to their managers about their health and come to a productive arrangement that worked for everyone and where women felt supported,” says Martin.

“If an organisation was willing to accept individual issues and work with them, it’d have a great impact on engagement and retention. But an out-and-out period policy could be open to perceptions of unfairness, and I’d hate for women, or any singular group in a workforce, to suffer any kind of detriment as a result.”

Back to my male friend with the cream leather chair from the beginning of the story. Do you know what he did? He ran me a bath and sent me to it with a cup of tea, and when I came back, feeling a bit better, I found the chair had been cleaned up without fanfare. “Shit happens,” he told me.

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The global view

Here are some of the countries that currently offer menstrual leave

INDONESIA

Women in Indonesia have been entitled to two days off a month since 1948, but the policy is rarely enforced.

ZAMBIA

In Zambia, period leave is known as ‘Mother’s Day’, and women are entitled to one day off per month, protected by law.

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JAPAN

Since 1947, Japan has let individual firms decide how many days women may take and whether they are paid.

TAIWAN

Taiwanese women can take up to three extra days’ leave during their period per year on top of the standard 30 days’ sick leave.

SOUTH KOREA

Menstruating women in South Korea are entitled to paid leave or payment in lieu of leave.

*Names have been changed 

Photography: Getty Images

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