A woman in a tan t-shirt sits behind her tablet in an office space
October 18, 2021 — Team Fempowered

Most of us have been there. 

We’ve woken up on a weekday morning to that all-too-familiar feeling: Period pain. 

For some of us, those menstrual cramps, especially within the early stages of our period, are severely painful. Whether you suffer from dysmenorrhoea (severe period pains) or not, it’s still more than likely that you’ve gone to work whilst in some level of discomfort or pain thanks to your uterus. 

If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably daydreamed about a world in which you can stay home, create the ultimate snuggly set-up featuring painkillers and a hot water bottle and just focus on feeling better. No work necessary. 

Well, in some places that’s already on offer… 

an image of two peoples hands, one is passing a period pad to the other

What is menstrual leave? 

Menstrual leave describes a particular type of time off for those who suffer from period pains. It suggests that, whilst menstruating, workers should be offered leave from their jobs as they would with any illness.  

Several countries across the globe already have official menstrual leave policies in place. These are particularly prominent in Asian countries and are noticeably less common in Europe and America. 

Japan was one of the first countries to implement a labour law related to menstrual leave, all the way back in 1947! It still exists today. However, the leave is not required by law to be paid. Similarly, Indonesian women are entitled to two days of menstrual leave a month, Taiwanese women are allowed up to 3 and Zambian women can also claim a day off, without it eating into their holiday time. 

Interestingly, in South Korea, one day is also granted by law. However, if a woman does not use this entitlement, they are given additional pay! 

At first glance, these menstrual leave policies seem pretty sweet, right? Menstrual leave can feel like a huge step in the right direction in terms of workplace equity, however, the reality may not be quite as it appears. More on that later… 

A diary sits open with an empty calendar showing, a cup of black coffee sits on top of it

The pros of menstrual leave: Equality, productivity and busting taboos  

We know. We know. The idea of menstrual leave sounds pretty dreamy. 

No more having to clutch a heat pad to your belly under your desk? Avoiding that awkward conversation with your boss after they demand you to explain your frequent toilet breaks? Less of those furtive outfit checks for a bleed-through on heavy days? Sign us up! 

And there’s no denying that menstrual leave here in the UK and beyond could have some hugely positive impacts. Not only for people with periods, but potentially for businesses too. 

Around 80% of women experience period pains. Plus, with a record number of women currently in full time employment (76.3%!), that’s a lot of workers who have to manage menstruation at work. So period leave could be a helping hand to a huge proportion of the UK’s workforce. After all, any other type of pain is treated in one key way: TIME OFF. People aren’t usually expected to “push through” other medical issues or encouraged to keep them hush hush. 

Just like all pain, we think that people with periods should be given the chance to recover. That seems like a human right if you ask us! 

On top of this, one study found that an average productivity loss of 33% could be attributed to menstruation. By giving people with periods the option to take menstrual leave, the time they do spend at work could be far more productive and effective. So not only could it mean a happier workforce, but one that is working at its best when present! 

Last (but most definitely not least), there’s the issue of tabooism. Unfortunately, periods are still very much treated as a “private matter”, as opposed to a medical one, within a lot of work environments. This could explain why 36% of people in the UK who have taken time off work due to their period have lied about the reason for their absence. 

By bringing the issue of menstrual leave into the public sphere and making this a systemic, legal change, it could send one important message: Periods are to be taken seriously. And they are totally normal.  

The cons of menstrual leave: Discrimination, uptake and misnomers  

As we mentioned earlier, there are several countries across the globe that are seemingly paving the way for people with periods thanks to their progressive views on menstrual leave. 

However, despite the option of time off whilst on your period, uptake is often extremely low. For example, in Japan, whilst initially more than 25% of women used menstrual leave in 1965, this has in recent years dropped drastically to just 0.9% of female employees. In South Korea, uptake also went down from 23.6% in 2013, to 19.7% in 2017. 

Why? It’s impossible to say exactly, but gender inequality seems like an obvious answer. Japanese women make only 73% of the wages that men do and, whilst employers are required by law to offer menstrual leave, they are not required to pay the employees during this time. This stands to only exacerbate the gender pay gap: for some people with periods, taking time off simply isn’t a financial possibility.  

On top of this, period taboos are still pretty common in Japan, with supermarket clerks wrapping tampons and pads in dark coloured bags when purchased, as though they need to be hidden. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that staff may be unwilling to discuss menstruation issues with their bosses. 

An image of a toy store in Nakano, Japan

A lot of people also have concerns that menstrual leave could actually foster more gender discrimination, not less. Looking back to the turn of the 19th century, Russia implemented a menstrual leave policy. However, it was later removed in 1927 due to the resulting discrimination that female workers faced. Even in our modern age, many worry that taking time off whilst on your period simply feeds into stereotypes of women being the weaker sex, potentially heightening workplace sexism. For example, one woman in the UK who suffers with severe period pains during the first few days of her menstrual cycle was told that she was “letting women down” by needing time off. 

Finally, many argue that menstrual leave shouldn’t be needed in the first place: That, instead, we should aim to foster a society in which it is seen as an acceptable reason to need sick leave, not a form of “special treatment”. Speaking to this, Sally King says that "every country that currently implements menstrual leave performs badly in international gender equality rankings… [menstrual leave only makes sense] in a sweatshop or otherwise exploitative situations, where there is no sick leave, or even toilet or rest breaks".  

So, is menstrual leave the solution? 

Alongside experts from around the world, WaterAid recently contributed to the creation of a definition for the term “menstrual health”; “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle”. In order for this well-being to be met, several things are absolutely necessary: 

  • Access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene  
  • Access to information about their menstrual cycle and self-care  
  • Access to effective and affordable materials  
  • Timely diagnosis and treatment for any menstrual disorders and discomforts  
  • A positive and private environment  
  • The freedom to decide whether and how to participate in all spheres of life (including work!) throughout the menstrual cycle  

Whilst it may not be possible for all of these elements to be met by a workplace, the majority certainly can and should be. Toilets should be menstruation-friendly with a good level of hygiene and privacy. Perhaps free pads and tampons can be offered for those that need them. And, of course, control over how one participates in working life whilst on their period could be granted through menstrual leave. 

Ultimately, we believe that the most important thing is for workplaces to have adequate and non-gender-discriminatory health policies that protect their workers. Menstrual health (and all of its facets!) should be an integral part of this. As such, period pain or discomfort should be legitimate reasons for taking sick leave if necessary. 

Menstrual leave in itself could be a powerful way to do this. Ultimately though, the focus should simply be on ensuring that policies, facilities, resources and support are in place for addressing the menstrual health of workers, however this looks for a company. 

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on menstrual leave and to chat about it with you. Perhaps we missed a pro or con that you’ve considered? Or maybe you’d like someone to hear your experience with periods at work? We’re always here! Simply drop us a DM on Instagram.  

Keep the debate going: Where we got our information  

BBC: Rise in full-time female workers boosts employment 

BMJ Journals: Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: a nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32 748 women  

Bupa: Female Health and Employment: Dealing with periods in work 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre: Japan: Gender pay gap may contribute to doubling poverty rates among women 

CNN Business: Should women be entitled to period leave? These countries think so  

Huffington Post: I Take A Day Off Work Every Month For My Period. Does That Make Me A Bad Feminist? 

Menstrual Matters: Menstrual leave; what lies beneath… Part 1 - Origins  

New York Post: The double-edged sword of countries that allow menstrual leave 

Quartz Africa: Women in Zambia are getting an extra day off per month for period pain 

Sparta Health: Period Leave: Snuffing the Stigma or a Regressive Mistake? 

The Guardian: Period policy in Asia: time off 'may be seen as a sign of weakness' 

The Jakarta Post: Go with the flow: Indonesian women divided over menstrual leave 

WaterAid: New definition of Menstrual Health set to galvanise action to meet the needs of people who menstruate 

Women’s Health Concern: Facts about period pain 

Zen Bird: Mission-driven companies fight period stigma in Japan