Employment policies allowing period leave come under fire from critics on either side, but are becoming more common in the workplace.
Parental leave was deemed a controversial concept when it first made its way into public discourse. That’s according to economic development and employment policy expert Elizabeth Hill.
Unpaid maternity leave was first introduced in New Zealand’s public sector in 1948. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was legislated for private corporations to also provide it.
Since then the leave has been reviewed and updated to become paid, gender neutral, and longer, though it still has its limitations allowing only one “primary carer” to take leave at a time.
Hill, who is an associate professor of social sciences at the University of Sydney, has been studying menstrual leave as an employment policy for about three years after stumbling across it while researching gender equality in Southeast Asia.
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Her research found parallels in arguments for and against menstrual leave as those used to debate parental leave in New Zealand and Australia before its implementation.
Critics’ key concern about menstrual leave, says Hill, is that it may discriminate against people who have periods, reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas attached to menstruation.
But its supporters argue menstrual leave is a policy part of a broader movement towards having inclusive workplaces.
This year period product company Modibodi made headlines by offering its staff 10 days of paid annual leave explicitly for menstruation, menopause and miscarriage.
“The policy encourages honesty, and we hope it means that our staff feel comfortable asking for support and understanding when they need it.”
– Kristy Chong, Modibodi
This was inspired by the New Zealand government’s announcement entitling workers to three days bereavement leave to cover miscarriage and stillbirth and the Victorian Women’s Trust across the ditch offering menstruation leave.
The Australian company’s chief executive Kristy Chong says as a company selling period products it was important to implement the leave to “openly discuss normal health issues”.
“The policy encourages honesty, and we hope it means that our staff feel comfortable asking for support and understanding when they need it,” Chong says.
She says since its introduction in May, a handful of the company’s 24 employees have used it.
“It’s important for us to break the stigma that periods are shameful, embarrassing or something to be secretive about,” Chong says.
“Over half the population has had them at some stage of their life, and it is high time we banish the shame that is associated with something that happens regularly and is natural. ”
The policy has also helped its business’ branding, with customers supporting the new policy on social media.
Hill says menstrual leave may be a new concept in New Zealand, but its origins date back to early last century. However, over that time it has been implemented in different countries over different times for very different reasons.
For instance in the 1920s, menstrual leave in the USSR was framed as a pronatalist policy that limited women from working to fulfil their reproductive function and reinforced biological stereotypes, Hill says.
Around that time in Japan there was a growing movement among female trade unionists who went on strike in a bid for menstrual leave because there were inadequate facilities for them. Similarly in Indonesia, women were working in industrial jobs and mining jobs with inadequate sanitation and also sought menstrual leave policies.
“It’s a major public health issue affecting everyone and the bottom line of workplaces, the wellbeing of partners, whānau and all genders.”
– Deborah Bush, Endometriosis NZ
Over the past 100 years other countries to implement menstrual leave include India, Italy, Zambia, and South Korea.
Now, the movement is becoming a labour entitlement and rights issue, Hill says.
“Menstrual leave is now considered a progressive workplace policy and innovation that normalises and de-stigmatises menstruation.”
The divisive policy
Yet, Hill says this policy is a hotly contested one.
“It’s one that feminists are divided on. There are few policies as controversial as this one.
“Arguments against menstrual leave are things around embedding biological stereotypes that women are less capable of men when menstruating. It might be a disincentive in employing women compare to men, and could be a source of discrimination and exploitation. Do you need to disclose it or get a medical certificate?”
Also, the efficacy of implementing menstruation leave on productivity and inclusivity have not been studied overseas, Hill says.
Critics also argue menstrual leave could simply be covered by sick leave, but Hill says proponents of the policy highlight that menstruation is not an illness.
“Women who experience severe menstrual pain shouldn’t be penalised by having to deplete their sick leave.”
Endometriosis NZ chief executive Deborah Bush says it’s also a matter of presenteeism and productivity.
Endometriosis is a condition that affects 1 in 10 people and can make periods extremely painful.
“Menstrual leave has also opened discussion around leave for reproductive health leave more broadly, for IVF treatments, vasectomy and menopause leave.”
– Elizabeth Hill, University of Sydney
Bush says endometriosis can result in 11 hours of lost productivity per person per week.
“For any employer that’s very significant data to take on board and should be enough reason to at least offer workplace wellness programmes.”
Bush says the debilitating nature of symptoms of endometriosis and chronic menstrual distress can lead to mental health issues impacting quality of life, relationships, schooling and career.
“We need to get our head out of the clouds that this is a female only issue. It’s a major public health issue affecting everyone and the bottom line of workplaces, the wellbeing of partners, whānau and all genders. Why isn’t menstrual wellbeing intrinsic to workplace wellness programmes, just as other major health issues are?
“We need to be more broad minded.”
Implementing the policy
Bush says the charity has an open wellbeing policy that enables staff to take leave when they need, but does not have a specific menstrual policy.
“Menstrual leave for our organisation is a given. It might be taken as sick leave but there have been times when someone has had bad pain or heavy bleeding, and the openness of our organisation means that they take the time, which they can make up and therefore the leave won’t be taken as sick leave per se.”
“If this was something that was happening on a cyclic basis with an employee we’d have a really caring and understanding conversation to help address their health concerns or help them navigate.”
Hill says companies that offer menstrual leave implement it through open policies.
One Kiwi company doing exactly this is another business in the period products industry.
Hello Cup co-founder Robyn McLean has been offering her small team of eight employees five “duvet days” for a year and a half. Under this policy staff are under no obligation to disclose why they are taking this day off.
“People automatically assume because we’re a period company that we would implement menstrual leave. But just because we’re a period company does not mean all our staff have periods,” McLean says.
“It’s really to give workers a day for themselves to look after their mental health essentially. There’s menopause, a whole lot of other things that they wouldn’t classify as something you’d go to the doctor for but they just need some time out and not want to disclose.”
McLean says the decision to implement the policy was driven by her own experience working as an employee.
“From a period perspective, I’ve had terrible periods and used to regularly need a day off because of my period pain and back then, I felt really uncomfortable ringing up my male boss and saying I’ve got period pain and I’m not coming into work.
“That’s why our thinking around duvet day is that you don’t have to disclose it because it’s a deeply personal thing.”
McLean says the leave has not been abused or used to its full capacity by employees.
“Being a small business is challenging, full stop. But at the forefront of a successful business are the staff. You need to be realistic about ensuring they have adequate leave, especially in a small business chances are they’re working extra hard.”
Hill says in the three years she has been studying menstrual leave policies around the world, the conversation has been evolving rapidly.
As women’s participation in the labour force continues to climb, businesses must recognise that if they want to maintain, retain and manage their workforce well they’re going to have to start thinking of these sorts of policy areas, she says.
Menstrual leave has also opened discussion around leave for reproductive health leave more broadly, for IVF treatments, vasectomy and menopause leave, Hill says.
“Those companies at the forefront of these issues might find themselves well placed as employers of choice and dynamic workplaces of the future.”