Period leave from work: The debate on menstrual leave

Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea offer employees menstrual leave—the opportunity to take time off during an employee’s menstrual period. Recently, Indian food delivery company Zomato offered its employees ten days of paid period leave per year. Some companies in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have started adapting or considering period leave policies, yet it’s a topic that sparks debate. 

For some, the idea of menstrual leave seems like a godsend. Enduring unbearable cramps, headaches, heavy bleeding, and general feelings of malaise are symptoms many don’t want to brave at an office desk or work environment. 

But for others, the idea of period leave spurs concerns over whether or not it will perpetuate period stigma and gender discrimination by singling out menstruating employees. So, what arguments come up in conversation around menstrual leave? We’ve rounded up the latest from publications across the globe.

Menstruation in the workplace

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health sought to examine the severity of period pain among young menstruators and found that, globally, 71.1 percent suffer from severe cramps. 20.1 percent missed school due to painful periods, and 40.9% said that painful periods had negative impacts on their school performance. 1

Painful periods also affect work productivity. A 2017 study published in Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that 13.8% of menstruators were absent from work or school due to their period, but 80.7% of menstruators reported decreased productivity due to their period. Doubled over in pain? It makes sense that it’s harder to focus. 2

The prevalence of decreased productivity on your period suggests a look at some of the choices menstruators make around work attendance and a painful period. There is, of course, the option to suffer through the pain, take a paid sick day or vacation day, or take an unpaid day, which not everyone can afford to do. 

One issue behind using sick days for period pain is that employers in the U.S. are not required to offer paid sick leave. The 2019 National Compensation Survey found that the less money one makes, the less access to paid sick days they have. 3 This finding speaks to the larger issue at hand within American labor policy. 

The case for menstrual leave

Proponents of menstrual leave suggest that instead of using sick leave to cover period pain, creating a specific “menstrual leave” policy would help shatter workplace stigma around periods. 

By implementing period leave, some companies seek to reverse the shame and conditioning embedded in society that drives us to hide our periods at all costs. They argue that calling the matter what it is—instead of further masking it under the blanket term “sick leave”—will help normalize open conversation around period symptoms and pain. 

Another 2019 survey of 43,000 menstruators found that, although one-third of participants missed work or school obligations due to their periods, less than half told their families that severe period pain was the reason why. 4

There’s an economic advantage to menstrual leave, too. A healthy workplace ethos, which mirrors an employee’s values, can also lead to better employee retention rates. Employees might be happier to know that they can miss work for crippling period pain instead of being expected to show up and endure their discomfort. Menstrual leave may ultimately support higher productivity when employees are present. 

What opponents of period leave suggest

Opponents of menstrual leave suggest that it could lead to more gender-based discrimination by singling out menstruators for needing to take time off, thereby insinuating that those with periods are less “useful” than their non-menstruating counterparts or implying that periods make you feeble or less competent. 

In reality, everyone experiences their period differently. Some people may struggle to get out of bed during menstruation due to the pain. Chronic conditions, like endometriosis, can lead to severe symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to lightheadedness, migraines, and pain that radiates throughout the abdomen for several days at a time. Certain contraceptives can cause heavy bleeding. PMS and PMDD can worsen existing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

On the other hand, those without chronic conditions (and blessed with good luck) may experience few cramps and minimal symptoms, making a day on their period not all that different from any other day.

Opponents suggest that menstrual leave strengthens gender essentialism, or the very damaging and highly discredited concept that men and women have innate qualities due to their genitalia. 

Concerns around disclosure

In a toxic workplace culture, a menstrual leave policy might lead to an uncomfortable conversation about why someone is missing work, which could feel unsafe to some—especially those with non-menstruating bosses. This brings about a second concern: Would employees offered menstrual leave feel compelled to take it if it requires this degree of personal health disclosure to their bosses?

A 2021 survey from Tokyo found that, out of 1956 people who were offered menstrual leave, less than 10% of them took it. Participants in the survey listed “filing for menstrual leave to a non-menstruating boss” as a chief reason why they did not make use of the policy. 5

Furthermore, while some policies require that employers offer menstrual leave, they are not always required to pay for it. This excludes low-income earners from utilizing these policies and only benefits people who can afford to miss the day’s pay. Unpaid menstrual leave could ultimately broaden the wage gap for employees who bleed and take unpaid time off for it.

Considerations for menstrual leave

Many of the concerns surrounding menstrual leave have the potential to be resolved via thoughtful and considerate implementation of the policy by employers.

In the J​​ournal of the Association for Management Education & Development, researcher Lara Owen, Ph.D., detailed her work implementing a paid period leave policy at the company Coexist in the UK and explored the trajectory of determining what to include in the policy. By listening to employees’ needs, policy writers decided that one day of paid period leave per month was sufficient. If needed, employees could take more time, which would come out of their sick leave. They could also opt to work from home. 6

In the process of researching employees’ needs, Owen found that menstruators with less extroverted roles didn’t need the time off as much as menstruators in front-facing roles whose jobs include more interaction.

Non-menstruating employees expressed their appreciation for the fact that menstruation was addressed openly and harbored no resentment toward menstruating employees. 

Owen adds, these policies have to be practical and serve the needs of the employees—otherwise, they’re futile. 

Coexist, Owen notes, is a progressive workplace culture that consists predominantly of people of menstruating age. More research is needed to determine how these policies might translate to varying workplace cultures. Corporate America? How about the restaurant and food service industry? If the company culture is less progressive, would employees feel comfortable using menstrual leave time? 

Training for managers and higher-ups on how to talk about periods is crucial. 

In addition, there remains a broader need for more research on menstrual stigma in the workplace—particularly in companies that have implemented paid menstrual leave. To date, there is very little data on how these policies hold up in real life. The question to answer is, does a menstrual leave policy help or hurt? 

Menstrual leave sheds light on the systemic issues regarding poor workplace conditions that don’t include paid sick time, medical leave, or ample parental leave. However pure the intention behind menstrual leave may be, does it have the potential to backfire on the destigmatizing goal it promotes? Only time, research, and diversified implementation will tell how these policies will affect change across varying workplace cultures. 

Learn more about menstrual leave

Here are some more resources that discuss menstrual leave and how it’s being considered by companies around the globe:

This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician. 

© 2021 The Flex Company. All Rights Reserved.

References (Click to open/close)
  1. Armour, M., Parry, K., Manohar, N., Holmes, K., Ferfolja, T., Curry, C., MacMillan, F., & Smith, C. A. (2019). The prevalence and academic impact of dysmenorrhea in 21,573 young women: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Women’s Health, 28(8), 1161-1171. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2018.7615[]
  2. Schoep, M. E., Adang, E. M., Maas, J. W., De Bie, B., Aarts, J. W., & Nieboer, T. E. (2019). Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: A nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32 748 women. BMJ Open, 9(6), e026186. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-026186[]
  3. As coronavirus spreads, which U.S. workers have paid sick leave – and which don’t? (2020, July 27). Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/12/as-coronavirus-spreads-which-u-s-workers-have-paid-sick-leave-and-which-dont/[]
  4. Schoep, M. E., Nieboer, T. E., Van der Zanden, M., Braat, D. D., & Nap, A. W. (2019). The impact of menstrual symptoms on everyday life: A survey among 42,879 women. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 220(6), 569.e1-569.e7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2019.02.048[]
  5. Public Relations Office. (2022, April 5). Less than 10% of female employees take menstrual leave. EIN News. https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/566807687/less-than-10-of-female-employees-take-menstrual-leave[]
  6. Owen, L. (2018, December). (PDF) Menstruation & humanistic management: The development and implementation of a menstrual workplace policy. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329915271_Menstruation_humanistic_management_The_development_and_implementation_of_a_menstrual_workplace_policy[]