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

A blogpost by Maria Carmen Punzi
Woman holding her stomach with signs of pain

On Tuesday 17th of May, the Spanish cabinet approved a bill on menstrual leave, which now needs to be passed in Parliament. If passed without amendments, the bill would 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.

  • Normalization of period pain. While mild cramps are common, menstrual pain should not interfere with life 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, like in the case of Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), which 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, who are likely to put menstrual health 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. It is of the utmost importance that medical professionals receive better training about hormonal and menstrual health, so that they are 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 office space.
  • 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?

In conclusion, Spain’s menstrual leave draft bill can be seen as an encouraging step forward for gender equity and, if supported by complementary policies, has the potential to change the European menstrual policy landscape and achieve good menstrual health for everyone, everywhere, always.

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