Periods can be a real pain but menstrual leave policies aren’t the solution
This week a Bristol company hit the headlines for its plan to implement a “period policy”. Most commentators’ reactions to this news could be summarised roughly as “Brilliant. How can I get a job there?”
It’s true that you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t at some point struggled into work in pain, wishing she was tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle and a large supply of heavy duty painkillers. In fact, women’s experiences of period pain vary wildly, from woman to woman and from month to month. Some lucky women experience no menstrual pain whatsoever. Many experience a bit of pain but nothing that an aspirin can’t sort out. Many others experience excruciating pain (dysmenorrhea) which not even the strongest prescription painkillers can ease. A professor of reproductive health at UCL suggested recently that for some women menstrual pain was greater than the pain of a heart attack.
So period leave policies must be a good thing, right? Well, actually no.
While it feels counter-intuitive to argue against more paid leave, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that menstrual leave policies aren’t a good thing and there are better ways of ensuring that women get time off when they need it.
Here are five reasons why I think the policy is problematic:
- Women already face an alarming level of workplace discrimination. Much of that discrimination is already based on speculation about our wombs. Are we pregnant? Are we likely to get pregnant? If we’ve already had children, are we going to request flexible working? Are we as committed once we have children? A leave policy for all women based on our troublesome wombs could have the unintended consequence of further entrenching the existing discriminatory attitudes that too many employers have towards women in the workplace. Bosses like Alan Sugar, who has on several occasions called for small employers to be allowed to ask women about what they plan to do with their wombs, would feel vindicated in their view that women are more costly and less reliable than men.
- Much like pregnancy and the menopause, menstruation isn’t in itself an illness. Medicalising and problematising women’s bodies isn’t generally something that should be encouraged. As with any sickness absence, it must be about the symptoms and the needs of the worker. So any woman who is experiencing period pain – be it pain worse than a heart attack, debilitating cramps, nausea, or a migraine – should call in sick. Just like a pregnant woman who has severe morning sickness and can’t make it into work should call in sick but we wouldn’t call for a blanket policy of morning sickness leave for all pregnant women. Women’s bodies do amazing things and some of those things can be pretty painful (as anyone who has ever given birth will attest) but that doesn’t mean we’re all ill or frail or that we should be closeted away from polite society for a couple of days each month. Women have fought for centuries against sexist notions of “the weaker sex” or “hysterical” women. Let’s not give in now.
- If employers can get their sickness policies and workplace cultures right, there should be no need for specific periods of leave. Anyone who is feeling unwell, for whatever reason, should be able to take sick leave without fear of falling foul of their company’s sickness absence policy. Instead the business lobby tries to convince us that we’re a nation of skivers and that sickness absence needs to be stamped out. The Chancellor has stated his intention to clamp down on sickness absence in the public sector, rather than asking whether increased workloads and ever decreasing resources might be taking their toll on the health of overstretched public sector workers.Bosses should trust workers to take sick leave when they need it. Workplaces where there is a culture of suspicion and presenteeism are not healthy for anyone.
- The reality is too many of us – men and women – struggle into work when we’re not feeling well because we don’t want to be thought of as skiving or because we’ve got such heavy workloads we say we “can’t afford to take time off”. Many workers on precarious contracts such as zero hours contracts or working for agencies, are fearful of taking time off either because they’ll lose out financially or because they fear it will impact on their future chances of getting work assignments or shifts. A recent investigation into Sports Direct uncovered a culture of fear at a distribution centre in the Midlands, resulting in sick workers needing emergency treatment because they’d been too afraid to take time off and go to the GP. The company operates a “six strikes and you’re out” rule where offences include “excessive toilet breaks” and sickness absences – not great for a woman with heavy and painful periods. If women felt more able to call in sick when they were suffering from agonising cramps then they wouldn’t need additional periods of leave
- Finally, and importantly, how could this ever work? The Bristol company in question has said it wants to “synchronise work with the body’s natural cycles”. How will my boss know my natural cycles? Perhaps I could mark it up on the departmental planner? Or perhaps I could be more modern and share my cycle via Outlook. Menstrual leave policies exist in several countries in Asia. In Japan such policies have been enshrined in law for over 70 years. Yet few women use their leave entitlement. Perhaps because they fear they’ll be perceived as less productive or reliable than their male colleagues or perhaps because they don’t want to talk about their menstrual cycles with their boss or HR. In Indonesia, there’s another reason why few women use their menstrual leave – employers demand that women provide evidence of their periods before they will grant them leave.
So, while we can all agree that combining work with agonizing cramps is a problem, I’d like to propose a different set of solutions. Instead of menstrual leave policies, how about employers and government stop perpetuating the myth that workers on sick leave are workshy skivers? By all means, let’s challenge the taboos that surround menstruation and women’s bodies in general but we also need to challenge the workplace cultures that prevent women from taking the time off they need.