Is period leave really a good idea?

Menstrual sick leave
An article from our expert

Have you heard the news from Europe? The Spanish government wants to introduce paid leave of up to three days for those suffering from painful periods. You might wonder what that has to do with the US, but this bill reopens the debate around menstrual leave. It concerns not only Spain and other European countries, but the US as well. Lab expert Laetitia Vitaud tells us why, in her opinion, this may not be such a good idea.

Taboos surrounding menstruation have begun to fade in recent years under the influence of committed feminists. Entrepreneurs are jumping at the chance to create new products to meet the health needs of women and FemTech is flourishing. The political world is also interested in this topic: we know there’s a desire to eliminate the “tampon tax” – in other words the sales tax on menstrual hygiene products – but that this tax is still applied to such products in 26 states in America. Employees also talk about the idea of menstrual leave and how the world of work would change if it were implemented. We’re thrilled to hear that people are beginning to understand and recognize endometriosis, a disease that affects 10% to 20% of menstruating women and can cause severe, recurrent pain as well as other health and fertility problems. We welcome the fact that the scientific community has (finally!) decided to address this subject. It’s not “normal” to suffer when you have your period; this “biblical” doctrine is no longer relevant. Pain as experienced by women, which is not well understood by the medical profession according to numerous studies, must be taken seriously.

In May 2022, the Spanish government approved a bill that would grant paid sick leave to those with “debilitating” menstrual pain. The country’s social security service will cover the payment of wages during such times. This bill is a first in Europe. Meanwhile In the UK, companies are looking at whether to introduce menstrual leave for employees affected by painful periods.

But is menstrual leave truly a progressive step? I’m skeptical for several reasons. Although it sounds great on paper, period leave could actually be seen as a regressive step that might do more harm than good – and could have worrying consequences. I believe there are other ways to improve the lives of employees afflicted by crippling periods.

3 reasons why I’m skeptical

1. If the leave isn’t used, it’s a waste

Menstrual leave isn’t new. It has existed for years in Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, but many women never ask for it because they don’t want to be seen as not being committed to their work or their employer. Because not all women suffer from periods equally, those who experience distressing ones may be perceived as less motivated, too fragile, or even as liars – as if they are faking it. As a result, they often prefer not to say anything due to fears of being labeled as bad team members.

In countries where women’s rights aren’t as advanced and where work is accompanied by a “sacrificial” culture, menstrual leave remains a moot point — you’re not going to claim a right that has the potential to harm your career prospects. For example, in an environment where pregnancy is accompanied by discrimination and stigmatization, you will not ask for a leave of absence for a miscarriage out of fear of having to talk about your miscarriage and possibly being reproached for it in the future. When faced with unfriendly managers, we prefer to remain silent and deal with the situation ourselves. The right to menstrual leave is effective only if our culture values it. Unfortunately, understanding is likely far from the norm in many organizations.

2. The risk of stigmatization

If women are more vulnerable or weak when they have their periods, then it’s better not to give them important responsibilities at work, right? The misconception that women are “slaves to their hormones” has long been used to justify the exclusion of women in certain professions and positions of power. Sometimes described as hysterical or unreasonable, women are often categorized on the side of nature while men are placed on the side of culture and reason. This conclusion is as old as workplace misogyny. Why aren’t men accused of being slaves to their testosterone when they display dominant behavior or express aggression? Is it because these behaviors are valued more in our patriarchal society? In reality, we are all “slaves” to our hormones, but we can live and learn how to work with (or in spite of) these hormonal variations. In a society that unfortunately remains unequal, it’s better to be wary of theories that are used to reinforce the patriarchy.

3. Period leave is unequal

A right that targets a specific population in defiance of another may be misunderstood by those who are excluded. They might ask: “Why does she have the right to stay in bed today when I have to go to work with a raging headache and digestive issues?” Menstrual leave is unequal. It imposes a hierarchy of ailments related to the menstrual cycle and symptoms stemming from other causes. Period leave could also suggest that it’s more expensive to hire a menstruating woman because she’s allowed to take more time off than her non-menstruating counterparts. Having to justify the reasons for these ailments violates medical privacy. Are sufferers expected to say “It’s a period migraine, not a hangover migraine!”? When a doctor grants sick leave, they don’t disclose the reason. They’re also not obliged to share medical records with employers – regardless of the gender or medical history of the patient.

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What could replace menstrual leave?

Managers setting the example

In terms of leave, what matters is the prevalent culture that’s imposed on employees in an organization. At companies where managers check their emails late at night, work through their holidays, and participate in Zoom meetings even though they have Covid, their employees tend to do the same. It’s reasonable to say that nothing has more influence on the work-life balance of employees than the example set by those in power. Essentially, these leaders are the ones who “allow” us to stop working when we’re sick, on vacation, or taking care of our children. Ideally, employees who take a break from working aren’t stigmatized or perceived as unengaged. The right to leave is effective when it’s encouraged and supported by the leaders of an organization.

Flexibility and autonomy at work

When you work independently on a daily basis without having to report your schedule or needing to be present in the office every day, you require less time off when you’re not feeling great. For example, during miserable periods there’s nothing worse than endless meetings during which you have to muster up the courage to hide your discomfort and look normal. This charade adds to your already heavy burden. On the other hand, when you’re in control of your schedule and completing your own tasks, you might be able to continue working at your own pace. However, be careful, this won’t fly if you’re extremely ill or if you’re in excruciating pain, of course. Even with all the flexibility in the world, pushing through work with a fever won’t do anyone any good.

What about “funk” leave for everyone?

A generous policy that grants leave to all employees who are unwell, but without asking them why they need time off work would have the advantage of avoiding stigmatization and protecting medical privacy. This type of leave would universally support and include all employees. Before “health” leave comes to pass, the implementation of existing rules on sick leave would be a great starting point.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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