How Legal Period Leave Can Lead To Other Positive Workplace Policy Changes

Many people feel that some women will "misuse" period leave, but it is not enough to hire diversity; diverse needs arising out of diverse people should be acknowledged.

Last week, Spain became the first country in Europe to pass a legislation that grants paid medical leave to women suffering from severe period pain. The legislation allows workers to take off as much time as they need, provided a doctor approves the temporary medical incapacity of the woman. In order to protect the interests of the employers, it is specified that the State social security system and not the employer will pick up the tab for the menstrual leave.

This is a historic move, because not only does it recognise how period pains make it extremely difficult for some women to get to work, but also addresses most of the concerns that employers have about period leave.

Debilitating period pain is reality for many women

It is a well known and well documented fact that some women suffer from debilitating pain, cramps and nausea when they are menstruating, which makes it virtually impossible for them to get to the workplace or to concentrate on their work. These women are forced to either take unpaid leave, or eat into their regular quota of holidays because they are physically unable to go to the workplace. What makes it even worse is that the stigma against menstruation is so strong, that when giving the reason for taking the leave, women are forced to either give an ambiguous reason, or make up some other illness.

This also results in others making snide remarks about how often the employee falls ill, and/ or the person getting dubbed as “not sincere” because she “takes too much leave.” Period leave is a boon for such women, because it recognises a genuine need, and enables her to take leave with dignity and without having her professionalism questioned.

Commercial concerns (of course!) invalidate women’s need for period leave

The biggest concern of people who object to granting period leave is that once it is offered, women will misuse it. People seem to believe that because a handful of women might treat period leave as a perk and take leave even when there is no need for them to do so, all women should be denied leave.

This attitude pre-supposes that employees cannot be trusted and that they are out to cheat the employer. While trust should be a foundation of any professional relationship, the provisions of the law address that lack of trust by specifying that period leave can only be taken on submission of a doctor’s note. This immediately makes it difficult, if not impossible, for women to take leave unless they have “disabling periods, which can cause severe cramps, nausea, dizziness and even vomiting.”

The other major concern of employers is that granting 3 to 5 days leave every month would impact productivity, and that many businesses will not be able to cover those costs. In Spain, the legislation specifies that state will pay the salary for the days when a person is on period leave. The employer will not have to suffer, and while the expenditure will be paid for through public funds, it can be deemed to be an investment in making the workplace more inclusive for women.

Will asking for period leaves further stigmatise or empower women?

Though the legislation is well thought out, detractors in Spain say that granting paid menstrual leave will “stigmatise women”. There is little basis to making this claim.

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Even today, women who suffer from debilitating period pains take leave on days when they cannot come to office. Such women have to bear the brunt of comments on how often they ‘fall sick’ and are branded ‘less serious’. Far from “stigmatising women”, granting period leave empower women to take leave with dignity. Women’s bodies are not the same as men’s bodies, and giving women the provision to take period leave empowers them to confidently state, “I am on period leave”, instead of having to say, “I feel unwell”, “I have stomach cramps”, or “I need leave for personal reasons.”

Legitimate period leave will also lead to other positive workplace changes

More importantly, this will create the space to have discussions around different needs of individuals. It is only after organizations start talking about challenges that women face that they can start addressing those issues.

Some of the other challenges that women face revolve around clean and adequate washrooms and childcare facilities.

Some like sanitary napkin dispensers and sanitary napkin incinerators of them are easy to incorporate.

Some like creating a safe space to rest if a person comes to work during periods and/ or during pregnancy, adequate childcare facilities and provisions for nursing infants will need a little more planning.

But each of these conversations can be started. This is important because when the environment is more conducive, more women enter the workforce, remain in the workforce and return to the workforce. This not only creates greater diversity, but in the long term will lead to better working conditions for everyone. While all of that will take time, a start can be made by recognising that period leave is not a privilege but a genuine need.

Detractors have a lot to say

Most of them tend to make the same arguments- “women are constantly asking for privileges”, “I cannot afford to grant paid period leave”, and “productivity will suffer if women are given so much leave”.

None of these is a valid concern. A woman who is suffering debilitating pain will take leave regardless of whether period leave is available- by making a provision for period leave she is allowed to take the leave with dignity. Pain medications often make a person groggy, and most certainly affect their reaction time- it is better to grant period leave to a dental technician or a pilot instead of forcing them to work when they are physically incapacitated. Ultimately, it comes down to trust. If an employer trusts an employee, she will not misuse the period leave and she will give her best on other days.

Some women raised what is certainly a valid concern “if we demand special privileges, people will stop hiring women”. Yes, whenever women win any privilege of this kind, the knee-jerk reaction is to be extra cautious while recruiting women. However, we cannot let this fear set the discourse. It is necessary to demand favourable working conditions, and to ensure that women who need them are able to avail of the facility.

At the end of the day, period leave is not just about ten extra holidays in a year. Women who are physically unable to come to work will, if necessary, take sick leave or unpaid leave. However, by granting period leave, an organization allows a woman the right to exist with dignity. She doesn’t have to feel guilty about taking time off every month, and neither does she have to worry about having her professionalism questioned.

The discussion around period leave should lead to discussions that make the workplace more inclusive. It is not enough to hire diversity. Diverse needs arising out of diverse people should be acknowledged.

Image source: OcusFocus on Getty Images Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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