In early 2020, just three months into a new job, Jessie, a 28-year-old editor in New York City, fainted at work. They knew their period was probably going to start that day, and that they’d likely endure some pain, but they needed to be at the office to film a video – especially because their team was short-staffed.
They decided not to call in sick. “I just don’t think [a period] counts as a sickness,” they say.
So, when Jessie began feeling pain – intense cramping in their abdomen and lower back – they took ibuprofen and tried to get back to work. But within 15 minutes, their body seemed heavy and tense, and they felt weak. “I was blacking out,” says Jessie. “Everything was blurry, and I couldn’t really respond.” They were helped to a couch, where they lay in the foetal position, until a health-and-safety officer passed by and sent them to hospital in an ambulance.
Jessie did not want – or need – an ambulance; they simply wanted to go home and lie down. If Jessie had had an employer-sponsored entitlement, they say, they would feel more comfortable taking time off or working from home when they’re in pain.
This benefit does exist for employees at some companies – it’s called ‘menstrual leave’. It allows workers who experience painful menstrual or menopause symptoms options for remote work and a set number of paid-leave days every year, on top of federally mandated paid vacation or sick leave.
Menstrual leave has existed in various forms around the world for at least a century: the Soviet Union introduced a national policy in 1922, Japan in 1947 and Indonesia in 1948. But it’s still rare in many large global economies, including the US, where Jessie lives. Now, however, a movement endorsing it is growing, as more and more companies around the world are starting to introduce the benefit.
If widely introduced, women, transgender and non-binary workers who menstruate stand to gain: they would have direct pathways to rest when they need it most, be happier and more productive at work as a result and find it easier to remain in the labour market. Yet, since menstrual leave has entered the global zeitgeist, some of its critics have argued that the benefit is unfair, or that it could further stigmatise people with periods. Does menstrual leave help or hinder workers who struggle without the leave they feel they need?
‘We’re expected to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work’
Menstrual-related symptoms vary from person to person. While some women cruise through their monthly cycle, others – particularly those with conditions like endometriosis or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) – experience a range of taxing side-effects. These often include cramps, back aches and migraines, which researchers cite as some of the most common causes of pain for women of reproductive age.
Most women try to push through and go to work, anyway. This is often because they feel reluctant to disclose menstrual-related symptoms to their superiors, for fear of being perceived as weak or incapable of doing their jobs, says Gabrielle Golding, a senior lecturer at South Australia’s Adelaide Law School.
We’re expected to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work, when we’re literally losing blood – Chloe Caldwell
Results from a 2021 survey from the Victorian Women’s Trust and Circle In, an HR software provider based in Melbourne, Australia, showed 70% of the 700 participants didn’t feel comfortable talking to their managers about how they could accommodate their menopausal symptoms (which often include heavy periods); 83% said their work was negatively affected as a result. And this tends to be “exacerbated in the absence of a menstrual leave scheme”, adds Golding – with dire knock-on effects, often prompting women to ignore their physical and mental health.
Working through the pain also spells bad news for employers, because this presenteeism accounts for an average of nine days of lost productivity per person each year, according to a 2019 Radboud University survey of 32,748 women living in The Netherlands. The authors suggest this makes menstruation a workplace issue.
Chloe Caldwell, author of menstrual memoir The Red Zone: A Love Story, says she often “white knuckled” her way through jobs as a barista and waitress in her 20s, which led to her own normalisation of the rage, anxiety and excruciating cramps she experienced monthly. It was only after “fainting a few times” in 2017 that she was finally diagnosed with PMDD – a particularly severe form of premenstrual syndrome – and able to access proper medical treatment.
New York-based Caldwell, now 36, believes that in the US particularly, the idea workers should suppress their needs is an effect of American hustle culture. “We’re expected to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work, when we’re literally losing blood,” she says.
A menstrual-leave policy, says Golding, gives employees like Caldwell, who might otherwise deny or internalise their suffering, a direct, employer-endorsed pathway to rest.
Feeling ‘deeply respected’
The idea of introducing these policies is spreading in some countries that haven’t traditionally offered support for menstruating employees.
Australia is among the places prioritising this benefit. This is in part by necessity; as the Australian labour market has contracted due to the pandemic, businesses across the board are looking for ways to retain their talent, and period leave is a desired perk that may help keep workers loyal and engaged.
Some leaders report when workers experiencing periods or menopause are supported, they're happier and more productive (Credit: Getty Images)
But increasing interest in menstrual leave is also tied up in broader cultural shifts around reproductive health, which have been in motion since before the pandemic, says Mary Crooks, executive director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, in Melbourne. For instance, menstrual products have been exempt from the country’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) since January 2019; additionally, some public schools are supplying free pads and tampons to reduce female student absenteeism. And the federal government just announced a AUD$58m (£33m; $42.4m) national action plan to expand endometriosis treatment.
Crooks introduced 12 days of menstrual and menopause leave at her gender-equality agency in 2016, after running a survey of roughly 3,500 people with periods the year before, which showed the number one concern for respondents (58%) was finding time to rest. The organisation has since published a menstrual leave template, alongside other resources, to help others across all sectors do the same (recent examples include the not-for-profit Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme and superannuation fund Future Super). And Crooks says the number of inbound inquiries the Trust receives from businesses hoping to deploy period leave has skyrocketed.
Lucy, a 28-year-old communications manager from Melbourne, experienced the benefits of these policies first-hand after joining an organisation with menstrual leave in May 2021. Even though she doesn’t require time off every month, Lucy has used the policy a few times on her first day of menstruation, when she experiences “very bad cramping”, which, coupled with waves of fatigue and bouts of depression, can make “concentration difficult”.
Her employer’s plan, which offers flexible working arrangements and 12 extra days of paid period leave each year, has built a culture of “trust and good faith”, she says. It’s this notion – “that you are the expert on your own body, your own needs, your own life” – that drives her to take time and recover when she needs it.
Access to menstrual leave has also motivated Lucy to work harder when she’s on the clock – and made her more likely to recommend her workplace to others. Where in past jobs she’s felt the pressure to soldier on at work, now Lucy feels “deeply respected”, she says, “not just as a pair of arms and legs there to work, but as a whole person”.
Employers themselves report seeing benefits from introducing menstrual leave. Kristy Chong, the CEO of Modibodi, a period-underwear company based in Balmain, Australia, has no regrets since introducing 10 days of paid period leave for her staff in May last year. She says trust among managers and workers has increased, employees seem more productive than before and the benefit has helped position Modibodi as an attractive place to work.
“By supporting women with these policies,” she says, “you empower them to actually want to be at work and to put their best forward.”
By supporting women with these policies, you empower them to actually want to be at work and to put their best forward – Kristy Chong
Menstrual leave policies are widely perceived as expensive, however – particularly by critics of these schemes, who often cite employer costs, incurred when paying people who are on leave, as reason to disregard them. Yet Marian Baird, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney’s Business School, says companies will likely be paid back in spades for introducing a policy. “If you do provide the right [services], women's productivity increases, their commitment and loyalty increases, and there are benefits to the firm.”
Any financial burdens have been well worth it for the Victorian Women’s Trust, says Crooks. In the five-plus years she’s been offering menstrual leave, uptake has averaged six days per staff member annually. It’s the Trust’s mission to empower women, but there's also a reward for doing so: the employers who create better accommodations for women at work will distinguish themselves from those who don’t, she believes.
Even amid the increasing momentum behind menstrual leave, however, these policies are still complicated, and draw their sceptics. Particularly, some critics fear modern iterations of period leave meant to reduce menstrual taboos and enhance employee experience could hinder gender equality in the workplace, since employees who menstruate would be treated differently than those who don’t.
The essentialisation of women’s bodies “could fuel harmful stereotypes that [they] are less worthy or reliable employees”, says Golding, or incapable of working while menstruating – when that is far from universal. Melissa Dobman, an organisational psychologist and the author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work, also fears women could be branded as too “emotional” if they discuss their menstrual symptoms in the office, even though that kind of “vulnerability is actually a good thing for a leader” to demonstrate.
Moreover, even if menstrual-leave policies are implemented, workers have to feel like they’re in a culturally permissive-enough environment to take advantage of them, says Golding, citing historical cases around the world where uptake is low, like in Japan. Even those who are covered may avoid taking leave due to the associated “shame and stigma”, she says, or the idea that it could stymie their careers – that is, unless they feel their employers truly support them. This involves company leaders, especially those in male-dominated industries, “signalling through word and action” that the policies are there to be used, says Baird, and employees like Lucy, who have taken days off, speaking openly about their experiences.
Even if period leave is implemented, some workers – particularly those in the service sector – may be left behind (Credit: Getty Images)
The expansion of remote work may also play a role in how willing or unwilling a worker may be to take up this policy – even in an environment where they feel supported. Women may “choose to ‘push through’ and continue working from home”, adds Golding, “rather than taking a day's leave” and risk having to disclose their situation to the higher ups.
And although these policies might benefit the workers who decide to use them, corporate perks – like paid menstrual leave or the ability to work from home – are not afforded universally. Service workers with intense periods, who spend full days on their feet, are forced to choose between a day off and a pay cheque. Golding believes this inequality must be fixed systemically: “A right to paid menstrual leave, which is mandated in a broadly applicable statute, would mean that women from a vast array of socio-economic backgrounds would be afforded the opportunity to take leave.”
‘It would have been a different kind of life’
Despite the issues complicating menstrual leave, Baird believes if employers don’t accommodate people with periods, workers with particularly debilitating symptoms could drop out of the labour market altogether.
For instance, employees experiencing menopause are at significant risk of leaving their jobs, according a 2021 study published by the UK’s Standard Chartered Bank. The report showed 25% of the 2,400 participants said their symptoms, along with a lack of awareness and support from employers and colleagues, made them more likely to quit. Another 22% said the same factors made them more likely to retire altogether.
And although Golding believes concerns around gender equity are legitimate, she also feels the trend, which she says is “gathering momentum” in Australia and around the world, will carry more positive outcomes – even if policies fail to manifest at the federal level. “Putting it colloquially,” she says, “the good will outweigh the bad.”
The uptick in companies offering voluntary menstrual leave policies is a good sign, agrees Crooks. And Baird thinks moves like the ones in Australia can have positive ripple effects on a global scale, too. This is especially the case as millennial and Gen Z workers with periods are increasingly more outspoken than their forebears, she says, and businesses facing labour shortages are looking “to offer policies that can attract and retain smart, young female workers”.
Back in New York, Caldwell, like Jessie, can’t help imagining a scenario where she had access to paid menstrual leave at her workplaces. “I think I would've learned much earlier to take care of myself and that I didn't have to deny my bodily function,” she says. “It really could have transformed the way I thought about myself. It would've been a different kind of life.”
Jessie’s and Lucy’s surnames have been withheld for privacy