Sitting at her work desk, Tracy Evans grimaced in pain. For the second time in less than two hours, the cramping in her lower abdomen almost felt biting, and her headache made her nauseous. Tracy, a 36-year-old marketing professional, understood what was happening. She knew the recurring pain would last at least two more days. While at home, the hot water bag and the recliner provide some relief. In the office, Tracy cannot afford to 'waste' that time to let her body rest, and takes a painkiller, hoping to be okay in a few minutes.
Tracy is not alone. Millions of women face a similar agony every month. The onset of the monthly menstrual cycle can be a painful experience. It is often worse for working women who do not have the ability to take a few hours off, rest, and then return to work. The demand for paid menstrual leave has been slowly gaining ground over the past few years and is finding increasing support from policymakers and other quarters.
It is already available in some countries
While Spain recently became the first European country to provide women with the right to paid absence during their periods, Asia and Africa seem to be leading the way in granting menstrual leave. In Japan, a law dating back to 1947 states that organizations must agree to give women menstrual leave by request. It does not, however, require companies to pay them for the leave. Most Japanese companies offer partial or full-day pay, while South Korea entitles women to one day of unpaid menstrual leave every month. Employers in error can be fined up to 5 million won. Taiwan authorizes women to three days of menstrual leave per year. The days are not deducted from their statutory 30 days of sick leave. In 2015, Zambia passed a law allowing women to take a day off during their period. India, Bihar and Kerala are the only states that extend menstrual leave.
What supporters say
There is no denying fact that paid menstrual leave could benefit women, like Tracy, who experience varying levels of discomfort during their menstrual cycle. A menstrual leave policy could also help women suffering from menstrual cycle-related illnesses, including endometriosis, polycystic ovarian disorder (PCOD), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), dysmenorrhea, and mood swings. Such a policy has the potential to encourage more open conversations about women's' health and reduce the stigma associated with menstruation.
Paid menstrual leave fosters inclusivity by acknowledging the biological differences between men and women. The pressure to outperform or better oneself in a fast-paced economy is a reality. Women, 7-10 days every month, can face increased competition even when other circumstances are normal. A female employee has to battle physical and mental challenges, which can affect her ability to accomplish her job tasks during her period. Women may experience anxiety and stress during menstruation which can also be counterproductive.
In India, Culture Machine, a media company, and restaurant aggregator, Zomato, have introduced period leaves to remove the stigma associated with menstruation and create an empathetic policy for women employees. Many women’s rights groups have welcomed the policy. This decision has been received well because it aims to normalize menstrual pains and the discomfort caused by periods. Many working women take sick leave to keep their menstrual pain clandestine. However, this reduces their available leave time when they may need it for an emergency or health issue.
What doubters say
Globally, Employers have embraced menstrual leave, but they have not wholeheartedly welcomed the idea in the U.S. Nearly half of the respondents in a 2017 a survey of 600 Americans published in the Health Care for Women journal said that paid menstrual leave would have a negative impact. Many cited concerns that such a policy would be biased against employees who do not menstruate. They feared that HR managers would hire more men than women because it would lead them to see less employees taking 2-3 days of leave every month.
The 'grey' area
A 2021 survey in Tokyo revealed that less than 10% of the 1,956 respondents took menstrual leave. According to survey participants, a major reason for not making use of the menstrual leave policy was that they felt uncomfortable asking a non-menstruating boss for it. That aside, some policies don't make it mandatory for employers to offer a paid period leave. A large population of women, especially in Asia and Africa, work in the unorganized sector, and are not covered under any human resources (HR) policy. As daily wage earners with families to feed, they cannot afford to lose out on a day's pay. To make matters worse, employers often promptly replace daily laborers if they don't show up for work, even for a day.
How companies can respond
Young workers are likely to be more inclined to work for companies that reflect their values and paid menstrual leave may help attract and retain talent. Advocates of period leave say receiving paid time off during their menstruation cycle and recognizing it as a barrier to effective work, without compromising on sick leaves, would empower women to seek meaningful employment with a company. A flexible work schedule could be another great option. Female employees can opt for work from home opportunities with flexible working hours as that would help them battle menstrual pains better.
The language to foster normalization and have open discussions about menstruation, as opposed to sexism, upholding objectification, and patriarchal misconceptions, appear to be needed more than ever. A menstrual leave policy could fare well only if it is adopted in an organization committed to challenging the stigma associated with the issue and bringing down gender-based oppression.