Australian private health insurance company, CBHS Health Fund, believes that with the inclusion of menstrual leave, the workplace is experiencing a new era of evolution.
They say that women across the world often dread their monthly cycles because not only are they painful and may involve heavy bleeding but also because they can cause mood swings, heightened sensitivity, and a “sense of shame” in women, compelling them to hide from the world. In some cases, women can easily bounce into their routines but in other cases, they may need a day or two to recharge and recuperate.
Referencing a Dutch study on the topic, they argue the stigma surrounding women’s menstrual cycles is so great that despite pain and discomfort they continue to go to work and face challenges as their focus and energies are compromised. The study inferred that as a result, their quality does not deteriorate. The study establishes that a key reason for this is presenteeism, which in this case refers to working while unwell. It further hypothesizes that on average, working women lose nine days of productivity per year due to their menstrual cycles.
For a detailed review of “Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: a nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32,748 women” click here.
Thirty-six-year-old, New York-based author of the menstrual memoir, The Red Zone: A Love Story, Chloe Caldwell says that she “white-knuckled” her way through her twenties working odd jobs that helped to normalize her rage as she experienced excruciating cramps – only to be diagnosed with PMDD a severe form of premenstrual syndrome, in 2017.
“We’re expected to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work, when we’re literally losing blood”: Caldwell.
Should women be asking for Menstrual leave?
It is pertinent to understand that while women between the ages of 11 to 50 or above might be facing similar symptoms, the severity of those symptoms may vary from person to person. While some women’s pain may fade a few days into their cycle, other women may experience pain throughout.
Dr. Kiran Coelho, gynecologist and advocate for women’s reproductive health says that while eighty percent of women may not feel pain during their periods, “20 percent have debilitating pain”. She adds that in such women, premenstrual tension is also severe and it is classified as PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder). “I often have to administer oral contraceptives [for pain relief], because otherwise, some would have to be hospitalized every month,” she says.
Similarly, Dr. Tanaya Narendra also known as Dr. Cuterus on Instagram explains that periods hurt because women’s bodies release “prostaglandin” which she likens to “juicing” the uterus. She elaborates, “It’s essentially juicing your uterus like a lemon. Squeeze your arm like this intermittently, for three days straight, and it’s going to hurt. I want people to care about period pain because it can be extremely painful for some.”
Dr. Narendra argues that in some cases this can be an indication of endometriosis, which goes unnoticed and undiagnosed in almost eleven percent of the world’s total female population.
Advocates for menstrual leave argue that while we can debate that time off can be adjusted to women’s annual sick leave instead of marginalizing women, it is essential to understand that we provide women the opportunity to hold “conversations about women’s reproductive health”.
Likewise, Aashraya Seth argues in “An argument for menstrual leave in India” that menstruation is still considered taboo in the subcontinent, especially in the Indo-Pak region where approximately twenty-five million women suffer from endometriosis. This is a condition due to which a woman’s menstrual cycle may hurt so much that she may even pass out from the pain.
It is pertinent to understand that while the concept of allowing menstrual leave is not new – in fact, in countries like South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, and recently, in Spain women are allowed to take days off (which may be paid/unpaid) on the basis of period pain. Of all Indian states, Bihar is the only state that has offered relief to women since 1992.
According to Seth, India even passed a Menstruation Benefits Bill in 2018 that allows women the liberty to take two days off per month as menstrual leave. Continuing along this train of thought, Seth argues that menstrual leave does not necessarily mean that women cannot or will not work, it just means to allow women the opportunity to work in the comfort of their homes, on their own terms, and with flexibility so that they not only fulfill the productivity and quality of their work.
Since the Menstruation Benefits Bill was passed, nine companies have allowed their female employees to take time off during their cycles. Some of these companies include Zomato, Byju’s, Magzter, Gozoop, iVIPANAN, Siwggy, and others.
Yet there are countries like the United States, Singapore, United Kingdom, and others that despite initiating a debate on the topic, do not offer paid/unpaid menstrual leave to their employees. According to Pearson Solicitors, a UK-based firm, there are no laws in the UK pertaining to menstrual leave. They argue that if women need time off, they have to take sick days off from their annual leaves.
According to Susan Mayall, Head of Employment Law at Pearson Solicitors, “Currently UK employment law states workers should use sick leave if they need time off work and sometimes if a woman has a condition such as endometriosis they may require to take more than expected in sick days”.
Pakistan, largely considered to be a developing country, is also amongst those that do not allow menstrual leave to women. However, according to the Labour Laws, employees are allowed ten days of paid annual leaves apart from 16 days of paid sick leaves, women are allowed six weeks of paid maternity leave and cannot be removed from their position during this time.
For a more detailed review, click here.
Why is menstrual leave gaining momentum the world over?
According to Emma Atkinson, menstrual leave allows women the opportunity to take paid time off to rest and recuperate. Atkinson argues that while some months can pass by with little pain, other months can take a severe toll on women’s physical and mental well-being with “days of intense, sharp abdominal pain, back pain, headaches, digestive discomfort, mood swings, and nausea”.
Referencing Canada-based menstrual cup company DivaCup, Atkinson says that it pays women twelve days of paid leave during their time of the month. “Diva is a period-positive company and our brand values are rooted in equity and body autonomy, so this fits into that mission and helps destigmatize menstruation”: Founder and CEO Carinne Chambers-Saini.
Kristy Chong of ModiBodi believes, “By supporting women with these policies, you empower them to actually want to be at work and to put their best forward”.
The 2019 study conducted on 32,748 women showed that not giving women time off during their periods often leads to lost productivity and presenteeism which is a bigger contributor to sub-standard productivity than absenteeism is. The study hypothesizes that taking women’s symptoms into account, it is likely that the real impact of menstruation is underestimated. They argue that the Return on Investment (ROI) from allowing menstrual leave is more than enough, ensuring not just the quality but also quantity of work.
Lastly, it is important to understand what Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women’s Trust means when she says, “Menstrual Leave creates happier workplaces where men and women understand and respect each other more.”
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