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PAIN POINTS

Is paid menstrual leave a good idea?

tampons in a box
Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
There’s no need to hide the reality of periods.
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The Spanish government is planning to offer several days of leave per month to people who experience severe pain during their periods.

The legislation, slated to be approved by the cabinet next week, would make Spain the first Western country with such a policy. Countries that include Japan and South Korea also offer paid period leave, and some companies—including Indian food-delivery service Zomato and UK community-development firm Coexist—have also introduced period leave policies.

On the one hand, it’s commendable that governments and businesses are looking for ways to accommodate people who suffer from debilitating periods, and to combat the stigma still associated with menstruation. “It’s wonderful to see that women’s health is being brought to the forefront of the agenda in Spain, and is being given serious consideration,” says Alyson Meister, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Swiss business school IMD who has written about supporting employees with chronic illness.

But diversity and inclusion experts also warn that period leave policies can go awry. Ultimately, there may be better ways to ensure that workers who deal with menstrual pain have access to time off when they need it.

The persistent problem of period stereotypes

One drawback to menstrual-leave policies: They can reinforce the sexist stereotype that people on their periods are irrational, emotional, and essentially incompetent, notes Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist and president of diversity and inclusion consultancy Paradigm. Depending on the confidentiality rules around period leave, employees might also find themselves dealing with the discomfort of a manager who’s aware of their monthly cycle, a circumstance that could itself encourage managers to connect performance with something like PMS.

In general, workplace policies that are specific to women can wind up further marginalizing them. “By making fertility and family highly visible and salient markers for women workers and, by extension, sending the message that work and career are secondary, it can limit women’s options rather than expand them,” says Pamela Stone, professor emerita of sociology at Hunter College and co-author of the book Opting Back In: What Really Happens When Women and Mothers Go Back to Work.

Who gets excluded from period-leave policies? 

Another concern with menstrual-leave policies is the potential impact on transgender people, Paradigm’s Carter says.

More than half of trans people in the US say they’re not comfortable being out at work, according to a recent McKinsey survey, and while a UK survey in 2021 found that 65% of trans people say they don’t share their identity at their jobs. Given trans workers’ concerns about facing discrimination from their employer, Carter warns that a menstrual-leave policy “could run the risk of forcing people to out themselves in order to access this kind of benefit.”

More broadly, Meister points out, many people suffer from chronic pain or illness of some kind, and may feel slighted by leave policies that apply to menstruation but not to other issues. “The issue is that given that humans have an innate tendency to want to feel a sense of perceived equity with their peers—they may question, ‘if this chronic illness is given approved time, what about my chronic illness?’”

Unlimited sick leave (and privacy) for all

A better alternative to menstrual leave policies, Carter says, is to offer unlimited sick time that’s accessible to people with all kinds of health issues.

When employees are going to be out of office for just a short time, she says, it’s also best if companies don’t require people to disclose what the underlying problem is. This approach gives all employees the ability to take time to recover without fear of repercussions, whether they need a day off for menstrual pain, mental health, or another condition that they’re not comfortable revealing to their coworkers.

That’s not to say that menstrual leave is always a bad idea—certain companies or cultures may be able to implement it without negative consequences. But those that do choose to pursue such policies should be sure to measure whether people are actually taking advantage of it, says Carter. For any policy aimed at furthering inclusion, she says, the ultimate question should be, “is our intention aligning with our impact?”

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