Many argue that implementing menstrual leave could provide a humane, safe and stigma-free way to allow people experiencing menstrual pain to suffer less and be treated more equally in the workplace; others fear such policies will lead to privacy invasion and discrimination. Should such policies be normalized and, if so, how can they best support people experiencing painful period pain?
What exactly is menstrual leave, and who does it serve?
Menstrual leave is just what it sounds like: a form of approved work absence due to painful period symptoms. It can come in many forms; some policies allocate a set number of days per month that a person experiencing menstruation pain can take off. In other cases, because many people menstruate without it effective their daily life, verification from a doctor is required before a person can claim the leave. Further, sometimes it is considered paid leave, as in a traditional sick day, and in others it is treated as unpaid leave.
There are clear pros and cons to menstrual leave, which is supported by a 2019 study that examined attitudes toward menstrual leave and found that nearly half of the 600 people surveyed expected a menstrual leave policy would have both positive and negative effects. Sixteen percent worried the policy would make menstruators look weak and put them in danger of discrimination. Another 11% of the study’s participants said such leave isn’t necessary, and 13% said a sick day would do.
Why is menstrual leave justified?
Menstrual leave has the potential to enable people experience period pain to treat their symptoms without worrying about facing negative consequences at work or forcing themselves to work through it and potentially cause themselves additional physical pain and mental stress.
People who menstruate will have 450 periods over the span of their lifetime, which means 3,500 days menstruating. While having your period is rarely pleasant, a global review of menstruation symptoms by the International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology (BJOG) found that 5 to 20% of women report severe dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain) that prevents them from participating in their usual activities, and uterine fibroids–noncancerous growths of the uterus–affect up to 80% of women by the time they reach age 50.
For those who experience dysmenorrhea, it can mean enduring agonizing symptoms such as “severe, painful, cramping sensation in the lower abdomen [. . .] sweating, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and tremulousness.” Working through these symptoms is difficult at best, impossible at other times–forcing people who menstruate to reduce their work hours and use their sick days to manage the pain.
Menstrual leave aims to address this, but it is controversial–and even though it seems on the surface to be supportive of people who have periods, even some menstruators are wary of broader, negative impacts. A 2019 study in Health Care for Women International found that 42% of U.S. adults surveyed said they would support a menstrual leave policy, but half of the overall sample said they felt menstrual leave might have negative societal effects.
A controversial concept, but not a new one
Although the idea of creating official policy for menstrual leave–as opposed to general sick-day leave–seems radical to some today, it existed in some places up to a century ago. Fortune magazine reports that, in 1920s Soviet Russia, the idea moved in and out of acceptance during the 1920s but was then officially ended in 1930. Factory workers in Japan who experienced painful periods while working in poor working conditions were granted menstrual leave in 1947.
Such policies, in varying scale, exist in countries such as South Korea, which has allowed one day off per month for menstrual leave since 1953, Indonesia has allowed for two days per month since 2003, and in Zambia the policy is known more discretely as “Mother’s Day.” In some areas of China and India, there menstrual leave for painful periods is also granted.
No shame or stigma attached–at some companies
The idea of adopting menstrual leave policy is slowly becoming more normalized. Indian multinational restaurant aggregator and food delivery company Zomato has embraced this leave space, and announced that people who menstruate will receive ten extra days leave a year, one per cycle–and that there should be no stigma or shame attached to availing of this time off.
“At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance. Starting today, all women (including transgender people) at Zomato can avail up to 10 days of period leaves in a year," Zomato's founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal wrote on the company's blog. “There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave. You should feel free to tell people on internal groups, or emails that you are on your period leave for the day.”
Job descriptions at LA-based Chanti, the queer- and feminist-led maker of an astrology app, includes “unlimited menstrual leave for people with uteruses.” Company CEO Sony Passi says the policy is intended to push back on the stigma on menstruation, telling the Washington Post: “It’s incredibly painful to have a uterus, and yet, from a young age, we’re taught to push through this pain and keep working.”
Countries currently embracing paid menstrual leave
In May of this year, Spain introduced a draft law, yet to be approved by parliament, which would allocate three days a month in the case of painful menstruation, though the and it was not clear whether the leave would be paid. The policy would also require a doctor’s note certifying the person suffers from menstrual symptoms that impact their ability to work. If Spain carries through with introducing such policy, it will be the first European country to do so.
In Australia, many companies are introducing menstrual leave, distinguished from normal sick leave. A researcher from the University of Sydney this is one of the reasons companies are embracing the idea, because “they argue that menstruation is not an illness and that workers should not have to be penalised by having to deplete their sick leave.” The same researcher says younger people also see it as part of a broader health support issue: “We’re hearing at least anecdotally from younger women in the workplace is that they want these policies considered as part of an open and respectful debate about how we can better support reproductive health and well-being at work.”
Health and well-being for menstruators
This is the view of many in favor of menstrual leave. As well-being as well as DEI gain ground as priorities in the workplace, menstruators who suffer monthly should be given the time off they need to manage symptoms. “If menstrual leave is thoughtfully implemented, it has the potential to improve the health and well-being of menstruators, particularly those with illnesses related to the menstrual cycle,” says Jessica Barnack-Tavlaris, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, who has spent years researching menstruation and health-related stigma.
Other argue that broader policies, beyond time off, that work to ease discomfort surrounding periods should be implemented. Arguing in favor of menstrual leave policy in Australia, one writer proposed a menstrual policy that offers a means to manage period symptoms in pain in the workplace: “For office workers, this would ideally include: working where most comfortable within the office and the use of heat packs, where helpful; flexible working arrangements to reduce the impact of period pain; as well as access to paid leave.”
Potential negatives of allowing for period leave
But as with anything, there are potential downsides. It is one thing to say people should not be stigmatized for menstruating, just as one should not be discriminated at work for availing of parental leave–but historically, in practice, this discrimination exists. There is real concern that, if menstrual leave becomes commonplace or even mandatory, menstruators will be perceived as less desirable, higher risk hires. It has the potential to impact opportunities for upward mobility.
And there are privacy issues. In a post Roe v. Wade world, women in the United States began deleting period-tracking apps in droves, for fears that the data may be collected and used against them in future abortion cases. This indicates menstruating people may be less willing to share reproductive-related information, such as their period, at work. And even outside of those fears, while managers may say that having a period should not be stigmatized, it is not comfortable for everyone to have to share details of their period at work.
Requirements such as presenting a doctor’s note to certify painful periods is violating for some–and may be moot, as not all symptoms are physical. Many who experience premenstrual syndrome become irritable or anxious up to two weeks before they actually menstruate, but another, more severe condition– premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)–can leave a person feeling abnormally fatigued and can even lead to severe depression. These mental health symptoms, some argue, should also be considered, beyond physical pain.
And there are further potential complications relating to cultural ideas of periods. Sally King, the founder and research director of the online resource hub Menstrual Matters, is concerned that menstrual leave policies in some countries or organizations are rooted in “antiquated ideas” about the workings of a menstruating person’s body and notions of having a period being dirty or that working during a period can negatively impact a person’s fertility.
People who menstruate should not be negatively impacted in the workplace for doing so. Post-pandemic, the focus on well-being has increased the onus of employers to provide support for employees who have particular mental or physical health conditions that can impact how and when they work. Menstruation, some argue, should be treated no differently.
However, policies such as menstrual leave have the potential to lead to discrimination against those who have periods, and as with gender or race discrimination or that against neurodiverse people, the implementation of menstrual leave policies must not lead to a person being treated unfairly or having a lesser shot at promotions or even being considered for employment at all.
And a final, important note: Regardless of whether your current employer provides for menstrual leave, anyone experiencing period symptoms that are preventing them from functioning normally each month should talk to their doctor. Heavy bleeding and severe pain should not be considered normal in the spirit of working through the pain, or fearing being considered weak for not doing so.