Menstrual leave; what lies beneath… Part 5- Alternatives

18 September 2019.

In this blog post, the fifth and final of the series, we consider 10 workplace interventions that might actually help to improve the lives of people who menstruate (and their non-menstruating colleagues, too!).


But first, we need to reframe the ‘problem’…

Menstrual leave has been discussed and implemented with the best of intentions. By allowing individuals to take additional paid or unpaid leave from work during menstruation, policymakers hoped to improve menstrual health, working conditions, and gender equality in the workplace.

Unfortunately, menstrual leave policies do not meet these goals. If you are one of the minority who suffer from heavy menstrual bleeding or severe period pain, taking a day off to spend at home in agony is not particularly helpful. Menstrual leave may provide temporary respite from awful working conditions but it does not improve those working conditions overall. Finally, in practice, menstrual leave has worked against gender equality at work by reinforcing assumptions that position ‘all women’ as unreliable or more expensive workers [1].

Menstrual leave policies are largely unsuccessful because they focus on the wrong ‘problem’. The problem is not the menstruating human body. The problem is that, especially in places where menstrual leave has already been implemented, workers have inadequate access to decent working conditions, rest or toilet breaks, sick leave, or medical treatment… Plus, women continue to shoulder an unequal share of unpaid childcare responsibilities. [2].

So, here are our top 10 alternative workplace interventions:


1. Menstrual health literacy

Due to inadequate menstruation education (in schools and medical training), most people know very little about the nature, prevalence of, or effective treatment options for menstrual symptoms [3].

This ignorance is not inevitable and it wouldn’t take much to significantly improve our collective level of knowledge. Therefore, a key part of improving menstrual health in the workplace would be to ensure that employers, employees (and their doctors), all have access to high quality information about menstrual health.  [Watch this space for some top notch Menstrual Matters resources!]

2. Access to effective treatment

Most UK workplaces (and schools etc.) could easily provide free ‘emergency’ period products (e.g. tampons and pads), ibuprofen (anti-inflammatory medication), heated pads or hot water bottles, hot drinks, and even some healthy snacks! Ideally, employees would also have access to a quiet space to rest until mild-moderate symptoms have improved.

In the case of severe cyclical symptoms, employees should be supported and encouraged to access quality medical advice and treatment options, as soon as possible. Doctors should also be better informed about menstrual health in order to provide a more effective service. [Again, watch this space for forthcoming Menstrual Matters resources!]

3. Adequate rest breaks

Does having to sleep on the factory floor to get through a super long work day (on mimimal wages) count as a ‘rest break’? Source: Michael Wolf

For workers who menstruate, being able to take a break and access a toilet and clean water is especially important, but all workers would benefit from better working conditions.

Rest breaks have been shown to decrease the likelihood of workplace injury or illness, as well as improving productivity and efficiency [4]. Providing hygienic toilet facilities also reduces the risk of coughs, colds and other infectious illnesses spreading through the workforce [5].

Surely, access to clean toilet facilities should be a minimum requirement for all places of employment, anyway?

4. Sick leave

Ideally, all workers (regardless of gender) would be able to take short term sick leave without it counting against them in any way [6]. Note- Menstrual symptoms are already covered by sick leave policies in the UK. This entirely avoids the issues caused by having a gender-specific benefit, such as menstrual leave, which can result in resentment of, and discrimination against, female employees.

Happily, research has shown that “paid sick leave policies are associated with economic benefits for employers, specifically in terms of improved employee productivity, reduced turnover and lower associated hiring and training costs, as well as improved employee morale and loyalty” [7].

Note- If menstrual symptoms are regularly severe, medical treatment is required- not just time off work.

Fight tha power! Contrary to popular belief, women take only slightly more sick leave than men on average- the difference is a miniscule 0.9% in the UK, and this is not due to menstrual health reasons- see part 2 for more info.

 5. Flexible working

Not a great look at work… Source: Pixabay- Michal Jarmoluk

Evaluations of menstrual policies in the workplace, recommend greater flexibility in work practices because most people only need a relatively short amount of time to rest/ manage menstrual symptoms before being able to return to work [8].

So, being able to work from home (if applicable) or take time out for a portion of the working day, is better than having to take a whole day of leave [8]. Time can be made up at another point, if necessary. If there is a quiet place to rest and take medication etc. in the workplace, then the amount of time spent away from work is minimised.

Remember!- All employees (not just the menstruating ones) sometimes need to take time away from work. It may be due to tiredness (especially for parents of young children, or those who enjoy an ‘active’ social life- see photo…), common workplace symptoms such as eye strain or headaches, or simply to deal with a personal issue or administrative task.

6. Contingency cover

Often, employees are put off taking sick leave because someone will need to cover them and this isn’t always easy to find on short notice [9]. Taking time off can also create resentment from those who are asked to cover the work [9]. It is the responsibility of the employer/ manager to resolve this issue. One suggestion is to do so through contingency planning – that is, a manager should have plans in place to cover any short-term absences in their team. For example, this may involve employees learning how to carry out some of the duties of their colleagues, having effective procedure notes for every role, or hiring a temporary replacement worker [10].

7. No sex-specific policies, please!

This workplace is so efficient it only needs one laptop between five beautifully ‘diverse’ people. They are laughing at the idea of implementing an employment policy based solely on a person’s genitals. Source: pixabay- rawpixel

Global evaluations of employment polices from the past several decades have consistently shown that gender or sex-specific policies (no matter how ‘good’ their intention) end up harming the very people they aim to help [11].

The trick is to identify the needs of ‘women’ (and ideally other marginalised groups) and to design policies for all employees that take them into proper consideration. That way, the policy actually helps everyone and does not accidentally make colleagues or employers feel any (more) resentment towards ‘women’ in general (or any other marginalised group).

Remember- “If the workplace provided safe and healthy conditions for all workers, women’s sex-specific needs would be catered for. They are labelled women’s ‘difference’ in order to avoid this responsibility” – Carol Lee Bacchi [12].

8. Fair wages/ equal job opportunities

Uh oh! Dave accidentally reveals the team salary spreadsheet… Source: Pixabay- rawpixel

It is no coincidence that the countries where menstrual leave has been implemented tend to have relatively large gender pay gaps [11]. Those included in a 2017 OECD report (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) are; India (56%); Korea (37%); Indonesia (34%); and Japan (26%). Note- the OECD country average is 15% [13].

Large gender pay gaps reflect both horizontal and vertical gender segregation. This means that women and men tend to work in different jobs, and those associated with women are paid less [14]. This results in women workers having less power at work and in wider society. Ensuring equal wages and job opportunities would go a lot further than menstrual leave in improving gender equality at work, and it wouldn’t accidentally reinforce any menstrual/ gender myths.

9. More equitable work/ life balance

Whilst on average, men work more hours of paid work than women, women continue to shoulder the majority of unpaid reproductive labour, often on top of paid work [15]. What is more, the bigger the gender split between paid and unpaid work, the more likely that everyone ends up working really long hours (see graphs below) [16].

For example, in Japan, husbands work an average of 18 hours more per week outside of the house than their wives but women still work an average of seven hours more per week than men, once unpaid work is also taken into account [17]. No wonder menstrual leave is seen by some as a ‘benefit’… Japanese women must already be near to breaking point (they work some of the longest hours of all), so when their periods arrive it may just be too much to keep going.

Lose; lose; lose… Menstrual leave countries (highlighted) have relatively bigger gender splits and longer hours worked (paid and unpaid) by both men and women! Source: OECD [16]
So, by implementing policies that restrict (paid) working hours to more sustainably healthy levels (as endorsed by EU legislation, for example [18]), all employees are able to have a better work/ life balance. Those who are parents also have more time to spend with their children and to share parenting responsibilities, improving gender equality.

10. Minimum standards for working conditions and labour rights

In the majority of countries that endorse menstrual leave, this specifically refers to improving (or eliminating, if possible) ‘sweatshop labour‘ conditions. In the UK and similar economies, it is about protecting those with ‘zero-hour’ contracts, or other vulnerable working populations such as migrant workers, or anyone forced to work long hours for low pay, or in uncomfortable or dangerous conditions.

Certainly, if we could improve global minimum labour standards regarding (flexible/ maximum) work hours, (fair and living) wages, appropriate rest and toilet breaks, health and safety standards (applicable to all workers), sick leave, and equal opportunities, (and stir in a bit of menstrual health literacy) there would be absolutely no need for any additional ‘menstrual leave’ type policy.


To conclude…

Menstrual leave is a well-intentioned idea but by looking at the countries where it has already been implemented, we can see how it fails to deliver on its promises of improved menstrual health, working conditions for women, or wider gender equality. In fact, it probably makes these problems worse.

That is not to say that there is not an issue to be addressed here. Throughout the world, working conditions remain unsafe and exploitative and in these conditions, getting your period can become intolerable. Closer to home, there is still more we can do to make working life more comfortable for people who menstruate, without accidentally implying that ‘all women’ are debilitated by menstruation. But if policymakers are looking to menstrual leave for a solution, they are sadly looking in the wrong place.


NOTE: This blog series is a summary of a forthcoming book chapter by Menstrual Matters Director, Sally King- “Menstrual leave; good intention, poor solution”, in The Handbook of Gender and Employment Policies. Sage; London

Summarised by: Tsara Crosfill Morton


References:

[1] For more detailed information on this, please see the previous blogs in this series… Menstrual health, working conditions, gender equality

[2] Again, please see the previous blogs on working conditions and gender equality

[3] This is probably the biggest problem regarding menstrual health- people do not know if what they are experiencing is normal or a sign of a health issue, and their doctor may not know, either (or be aware of evidence-based treatment options for any underlying health problem)… This is why Menstrual Matters exists! For a useful overview, check out this previous bloghttps://www.menstrual-matters.com/blog/changes-v-symptoms/

[4] Lombardi, David, A., Jin, K., Courtney, T. K., Arlinghaus, A., Folkard, S., Liang, Y., & Perry, M. J. (2014). The effects of rest breaks, work shift start time, and sleep on the onset of severe injury among workers in the People’s Republic of China. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 40(2), 146–155. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/43188411

[5] Linder, M., & Nygaard, I. (1998). Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2224285

[6] Sick leave is provided to most workers, unless you are self-employed, temporary, or vulnerable e.g. on a ‘zero hours’ contract. Also, some UK employers use sick leave absences against the employee- e.g. to prevent a pay rise or job promotion. I think this should count as a type of employment discrimination but as far as I know, it isn’t currently covered by the workplace Equality Act (2010) 

[7] p44. of Schliwen, A., Earle, A., Hayes, J., & Heymann, S. J. (2011). The administration and financing of paid sick leave. International Labour Review, 150(1), 43–62. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1564-913X.2011.00104.x

[8] A Taiwanese menstrual leave evaluation and a UK ‘menstrual flexibility’ company policy review found that most employees did not require more than 2 hours away from work to manage/ treat moderate to severe menstrual symptoms;

Chang, C., Chen, F.-L., Chang, C.-H., & Hsu, C.-H. (2011). A preliminary study on menstrual health and menstrual leave in the workplace in Taiwan. Taiwan Gong Gong Wei Sheng Za Zhi, 30(5), 436–450. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1020694304?pq-origsite=gscholar

Owen, L. (2018). Menstruation and humanistic management at work: The development and implementation of a menstrual workplace policy. E-Organisations & People (Journal of the Association for Management Education & Development), 25(4), 23–31. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/38038865/Menstruation_and_humanistic_management_at_work_The_development_and_implementation_of_a_menstrual_workplace_policy

[9] The above Taiwanese menstrual leave evaluation and UK ‘menstrual flexibility’ company policy review also found that finding cover for an individual’s role was a significant barrier to taking sick leave/ menstrual leave.

[10] The UK company ‘menstrual flexibility’ policy used contingency planning to improve short term cover for roles- resulting in improved wellbeing and uptake of sick leave by both men and women employees (see Owen reference above).

[11] Research has found that the gender pay gap for all women (not just mothers) is higher in countries with women-only policies. See;

Mandel, H., & Semyonov, M. (2005). Family policies, wage structures, and gender gaps: Sources of earnings inequality in 20 countries. American Sociological Reviewhttps://doi.org/10.1177/000312240507000604

and Misra, Joya; Michelle Budig; Stephanie Moller (2006). “Reconciliation Policies and the Effects of Motherhood on Employment, Earnings, and Poverty”. Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper Series. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236862260_Reconciliation_policies_and_the_effects_of_motherhood_on_employment_earnings_and_poverty 

[12] p. 152 in Bacchi, C. L. (1990). Same difference : feminism and sexual difference. Sydney ;Boston: Allen & Unwin.

[13] Based on fig 1.15 in OECD. (2017). A Decade of Social Protection Development in Selected Asian Countries. OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264272262-en

[14] p. 218 in Wharton, A. S. (2005). The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and ResearchBlackwell Publishing.

[15] ILO, & Eurofound. (2019). Working conditions in a global perspective. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_696174.pdf

[16] Data and graphs from Miranda, V. (2011), “Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World”, O.E.C.D. Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 116, O.E.C.D. Publishing, Paris. Images retrieved from https://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/in-most-rich-countries-women-work-more-than-men/

[17] p. 35 in North, S. (2009). Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan. Social Science Japan Journal, 12(1), 23–44. https://doi.org/10.1093/ssjj/jyp009

[18] In EU countries you are not supposed to work more than 48 hours a week on average – normally averaged over 17 weeks. This law is sometimes called the ‘working time directive’ or ‘working time regulations’- for more info see https://www.gov.uk/maximum-weekly-working-hours


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