I have spent the last four months thinking about ailments that make it harder for people to do their jobs. Things like back pain, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis were researched in detail in order to give employers some insight into how to better set up their workplaces — and workplace policies — to help their employees feel good and perform better.
One condition that didn’t make the list was premenstrual syndrome. And to be completely honest, I was the one who cut it. In my mind, that was my monthly burden to bear.
Plus I’m much more comfortable bitching about bad cramps and trading remedies with female co-workers in a washroom setting than I would ever be in a formal meeting with my boss. The thought of Rick Bell handing me a pamphlet on the best ways to relieve bloating makes me cringe.
But then yesterday this happened, and my opinion changed.
“Community interest” company Coexist in the English city of Bristol became the first-ever U.K. business to provide paid time off for employees on their periods.
The decision, according to the company’s director Bex Baxter, was based on the fact that while many female employees were in visible pain each month, they refused to see themselves as unwell so they weren’t taking the time they needed to recover.
“We wanted a policy in place which recognizes and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness,” Baxter told the Bristol Post. “There is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive.”
I dug a little deeper, and while new to the U.K., similar policies have existed in Asian countries for decades. According to an Atlantic article, Japan has had menstrual leave since just after World War II when a flood of women were entering the workforce in factories, mines and bus stations, which had little in the way of sanitary facilities. Taiwan amended its Act of Gender Equality in 2013 to guarantee female employees three days of menstrual leave a year. Indonesian women get two days a month.
Policies like this make sense given the symptoms associated with menstruation. Dysmenorrhea, the clinical term for menstruation pain, affects 1 in 5 individuals who get periods and is characterized by throbbing and cramping pain in the lower abdomen. University College London professor of reproductive health John Guillebaud points out that cramps can be as “bad as having a heart attack.
And while the term heart attack and a history of menstrual leave being granted are solid supporting arguments for menstrual leave being offered worldwide, what I couldn’t get over was the concept that women could potentially be seen as “unproductive” for taking menstrual leave if offered.
Menstrual leave policies like the one created by Coexist will succeed because they’re not basing the decision to offer leave on the fact that a woman is any less productive or valuable of an employee than their non-menstruating peer.
Women aren’t asking for charity. They’re asking for the opportunity to take care of themselves when needed so that they can perform at their highest level. And in exchange for that time, they will continue to work hard and meet deadlines.
And Baxter reiterates that point: “This is not about employees taking more time off, but working more flexibly and efficiently around their menstrual cycle and encouraging a work-life balance.”
Work-life balance is the key. Employers offer flexible work schedules to ensure employees can care for aging parents or get to their children’s soccer game. It’s about trusting the employee to know what they need to take care of in order to perform at their highest level while at work.
In offering menstrual leave, employers are telling their female employees that they understand the situation. Even if female employees elect not to take the time offered, they are left feeling supported by their employer.
And that support creates an atmosphere for a workforce that is motivated to produce great work.