If you're thinking of introducing a 'menstrual leave policy', please read this first

I read an article over the summer about the implementation of Menstrual Leave in the Australian workplace and as calls to implement them here are getting louder, this article looks at why it make not be the answer it should be.  

I must admit, my first reaction when I read the article was to think 'oh that's good', as I remembered all the time I used to have to take off work for my endometriosis:  Pre-diagnosis there were symptoms that I just thought were part of my cycle but that meant I had to take time off work.  Then time off for hospital appointments.  Then "presenteeism" (where you're physically at work but mentally somewhere entirely different) as well as more physical absences during the (horrific!) treatments and the lasting impact afterwards.

How great would it have been to be able to do all of that under 'menstrual leave'?  

But then I thought about it. And it didn't take me long to decide that actually, it's a potentially divisive and regressive policy that should be challenged.

Now, before I go on, I want to point out that I am a huge advocate for people who have endometriosis (and other chronic health conditions).  We get a raw deal and I fight for the treatment of endo and the people who are struggling with it to be so much better. 

Surely a menstrual leave policy that recognises the need for time off because of our cycle is a good thing and supports your view?

Well on paper it seems to be a supportive hug in a time that, otherwise, feels very isolating and depressing but I believe that the reality of its implementation will add to the stress of the situation.  

Rather than making people feel better about having to take time off for "menstrual issues", I believe that this policy will be more divisive than supportive. I don't think it means to. I am sure that the people who are pushing for its introduction mean well.   But the reality is that this policy will do nothing to help women who struggle with their menstrual cycles.

Whilst at least 10% of women (and people assigned female at birth) struggle with endometriosis, 90% don’t.  The numbers are similar for other conditions that cause similar symptoms (like adenomyosis and PCOS).   For those people, they can be experiencing symptoms for 1 or 2 weeks (or more!) of the month.    To assign that under the badge of ‘menstrual leave’ creates instant comparison between them and those who only need to take a day or, even worse, never need to take any time off at all.  

We already face the stigma of being dismissed as “just a bad period” and this just adds to it - ‘but Emma in accounts has periods and she doesn’t need time off’.  

The menstrual cycle shouldn't cause significant pain, bloating fatigue or any of the other symptoms that require time off work and to implement policies that make it OK for our periods to get in the way of us doing our jobs is not good.  People need to be reminded that a healthy cycle is one that does not impact hugely on your day.

What about those men who struggle with chronic health conditions, too? Why are we singled out as being different?  I can’t imagine that a workplace would implement a “prostate cancer leave policy” because this illness is already covered under existing policy requirements.  Well, so are those illnesses that cause people to have time off with menstrual issues.

We don't need a policy that gives us time off during our cycle. We don't want anything that 'normalises' the type of symptoms that shouldn't be normalised.  We need education and someone to be in our corner when we’re getting dismissed from the GP surgery as “hysterical”  (yes, that still happens!).

So what’s the alternative?

What we actually need is education.

Employers need to be educated that having a menstrual cycles that brings with it symptoms that warrant time off isn’t healthy. It is not something that they need to legislate for, it’s something that they need to show care and compassion for.

  • Encourage employees to seek help from their GP.  
  • Reassure them that their job will be waiting for them when they need to take time off work to recover from surgery.    
  • Follow existing sickness policies with care and compassion.  
  • Invoke their statutory rights under disability discrimination legislation (because Endometriosis and other chronic conditions do fall under these laws) without being asked to. 

These are what is needed and this is what will make you a good and supportive employer. 

What we need are workplaces where everyone feels valued.  We need open and honest conversations about menstrual health, but not patronising faux-sympathy from a blanket, one-size-fits-all, tick-box policy.

Don't normalise these symptoms.  Don't just send us home as "poorly".  Support us to get the help we need from (conventional or natural) medicinal professionals so that we can get our lives back.

Give us the flexibility to work from home or work our hours flexible so that we can manage our condition - we can take some time off if we need to with our having to dial in and explain ourselves. Trust us to manage our own time. Manage us based on outcomes.  Talk to us about what we need and how we’re feeling. 

We don't need a menstrual leave policy.  We need understanding and support to overcome these symptoms.

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Sarah Coulson is a therapist and endometriosis expert.  Diagnosed with endometriosis herself almost 20 years ago, she now support others to overcome this condition, as well as offering training and support to employers to understand how they can support employees with endo better and raise awareness of the symptoms and remedies.  Sarah can be contacted on sarahc@halcyontherapies.co.uk for further details.