One area of flexibility that generally receives less attention is period or menstrual leave. Each year, there are a smattering of articles and medical papers investigating how women manage periods and period pain at work. Some countries, such as Japan, have had period leave in place for decades (1), whilst others, such as Italy, have implemented a form of period leave in the last few years (2). In the UK and the US, the practice is generally uncommon. Some women are opposed to the idea, including in those countries where it already exists, as they feel it reinforces unhelpful stereotypes about women being weak and unreliable and therefore it hampers their career development (3).
Just as paid maternity leave was seen as a threat to women’s employment, so too is paid period leave. Even if the policy exists, merely informing a male manager of the use of it can be enough to deter women from accessing its benefits (4). Some feminists view period leave as paternalistic and unhelpful, with medical advances such as the contraceptive pill enabling women to overcome their bodies’ apparent limitations. Others argue that periods are not an illness, but an innate part of women’s lives and are themselves essential for life: period leave is comparable to maternity leave, and should receive as much attention from employers.
There are a variety of negative symptoms that commonly affect women during the week of their menstrual cycle when they bleed. Cramps, fatigue, and nausea are the most common symptoms, whilst others such as vomiting and fainting occur less frequently, and can be an indicator of an underlying condition such as dysmenorrhea or PCOs. Each week in a woman’s menstrual cycle affects her body differently – for example, women are more prone to soft tissue injuries during bleeding (5), and at certain points have higher productivity and better spatial awareness, amongst other changes (6).
Historic Models, Present Realities
Women’s bodies are clearly different to men’s bodies. Yet, office-based roles were initially designed by men for men at a time when such fathers and husbands were often the sole bread-winners, and had a much reduced role in parenting and home-making than in today’s culture. Today, 46% of the workforce between the ages of 16 to 64 are female (7). A model of work built for men in a culture that has changed significantly may not be sufficiently adapted to your employees to encourage maximum productivity and longevity. Our attitudes towards rest, sick leave, and working from home should not presume that those who ask for such things are weak and therefore less valuable to an organisation, but different to those for whom offices were originally intended. Productivity should not be measured in hours spent at a desk, but in objectives met, relationships built, change achieved.
But will period leave actually help the women in your employ? At Carnelian, we’re a company of 5. We’re a closely knit team, we regularly feedback about policies and structures that could be improved, and change is easily achieved. This means it’s easy for us to implement period leave without female employees fearing that this will limit their career development or encourage frustration in their male counterparts. In larger charities and businesses, this may be less plausible. But if you have a hand in the policies that shape office culture and expectations, it’s worth considering how you accommodate women’s health so that they aren’t limited or set back in their development merely for being female. Periods are taboo, and some women are happy with this. Others want to burst the bubble and stop having to hide tampons as they run to the loo. Either way, employers should consider that, in all likelihood, their female employees under the age of fifty may be in severe pain at work 1 or 2 days a month. Period leave may not be right for you, but as we consider flexible working options in light of COVID, we should consider what assumptions we have about what an effective workforce looks like, and whether these are still true.
This piece was written by Abi, our Research Associate.