Menstrual health at work: is period leave the right solution?

sanitary products, periods

On Tuesday 17th of May 2022, the Spanish cabinet approved a bill on menstrual leave, the first one in Europe. The draft will be debated in Parliament, and the current government hopes it will officially become law at the end of the year.

If passed without amendments, the bill will grant three-day sick leave for painful periods, which can be extended to five for people who experience incapacitating pain.

This is a groundbreaking moment in the recognition of menstrual health as a key steppingstone to gender equity. For far too long menstruation has been a taboo at work and beyond, causing women and people with cycles to neglect their needs and suffer in silence.

While this progress must be celebrated, menstrual leave as a standalone policy can be problematic and needs to be understood in its context.

  • Normalization of period pain. While mild cramps are common, menstrual pain should not interfere with daily activities like work. Debilitating menstrual pain and complaints should always be discussed with a medical professional, rather than (only) be considered a good reason to take a day off.
  • More than just physical symptoms. The current draft bill asks employees to present a doctor’s note to certify their painful periods. As known from existing studies, menstrual pain is very often dismissed at the doctor’s office. This requirement presents a high threshold to accessing menstrual leave. Additionally, the leave would not apply to those that experience (severe) psychological symptoms, such as people who suffer from Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a condition that impacts mental health throughout the cycle.
  • Risk of discrimination. As it is unfortunately already known, sex-specific measures (like maternal leave) present a risk of decreasing women’s employability. Although not every person with a cycle would be granted leave, the possibility might discourage managers from hiring them or putting them on a specific project, to avoid having to cover for them unexpectedly.

The draft bill has already sparked conversations in many European countries, and the topic of menstrual health is likely to gain momentum on their agenda in the near future. To ensure that these provisions really benefit employees, it is important to integrate the following:

  • Menstrual health education for all. Medical professionals need to receive better training about hormonal and menstrual health, to be equipped to answer questions and investigate menstrual cycle related complaints. Furthermore, employees and managers alike should receive accurate information about menstrual cycles, as well as the existence of – and treatment for – different menstrual symptoms.
  • Flexible working. With the pandemic, we all had to reorganize our work and have seen that many activities can be performed remotely and from the comfort of our homes. As we slowly transition back to the office, it is important that work from home options remain available. However, since not every employee has an option to work remotely, they should be able to access adequate spaces to take a break and rest in the physical work location(s).
  • More research on menstrual discomfort, conditions, and disorders. Instead of addressing the symptoms, it is essential we address the roots of the problem. Why are many women experiencing debilitating pain and symptoms? What are the best and most effective treatments available? And how can we make these treatments accessible to everyone?

It is essential that we do not lose sight of who this bill is meant to support, namely women and people with cycles. We need to keep the following in mind:

  • Safeguarding the right to privacy. The menstrual cycle remains an intimate biological process, and some people might not feel comfortable bringing it up. They should not be required to disclose it to be granted leave. Let’s not forget that for some, menstruating might be related to other sensitive subjects such as chronic pain, infertility, and other kinds of trauma.
  • The menstrual cycle experience looks different for different people. Just because some people don’t experience debilitating symptoms, it does not mean theirs is a universal experience. Managers and colleagues alike should not dismiss or invalidate other people’s lived experience of menstruation and the cycle.
  • Policies can only go so far. (Organizational) culture matters. To really achieve good menstrual health and wellbeing for all, at work and beyond, a shift in culture is needed. Leaders and employees should pay attention to the words (or lack thereof) used to talk about menstruation in their organization and co-create a safe space for all.

In conclusion, Spain’s menstrual leave draft bill can be seen as an encouraging step forward for gender equity. However, it must be supported by complementary policies and existing studies and data, to ensure that it achieves the impact it strives for.

Good menstrual health for everyone, everywhere, always.

About the author

Maria Carmen Punzi is a Menstrual Health researcher and activist. In 2019, she won a five-year grant to complete her PhD on menstrual health and social enterprises at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Since 2017, she has worked in multiple international organizations building evidence on the connections between menstrual health, sexual and reproductive health and gender equity.  Her research starts from the recognition that while data shows that menstrual health affects women’s opportunities, health and inclusive participation in society, the topic is widely missing in current agendas around gender equity. In 2021, in collaboration with other stakeholders, she has advocated and obtained funding for free menstrual products on the Erasmus campus, and continues her activism within and beyond the university. She also regularly consults organizations and companies on menstrual health education, content creation and menstrual products’ business innovation.

Maria Carmen Punzi

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