Why Menstrual Leave Matters

For Menstrual Hygiene Day, we closely look into the origins of Menstrual Leave Policy, its presence around the world and how it can uplift your organization’s work culture.

A sanitary pad and an underwear with period blood stains
Image credits: Pexels 

"If someone has an illness with such symptoms a temporary disability is granted, so the same should happen with menstruation – allowing a woman with a very painful period to stay at home," Angela Rodriguez, the Secretary of State for Equality said to El Periodico newspaper, as Spain became the first country in Europe to offer menstrual leave to women.

In a landmark reform that was announced on 11th May, 2022, Spain further declared that free sanitary pads and tampons would be provided to menstruators from marginalized social circumstances with the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) from the products’ supermarket sale prices. A country taking such a significant step in the right direction adds a new dimension to the ongoing discourse surrounding menstrual leave and accommodations for menstruators in professional spaces.

32 to 40% of the people who menstruate go through period pain that is so intense that they end up missing work or school as a consequence. A large amount of data from around the globe supports the fact that periods can cause a loss of productivity, intense fatigue and several other physical and mental hardships.

In order to alleviate some of the external burdens, menstrual leave can help. This refers to a pre-decided number of days that people who menstruate can avail annually depending on when during their cycle they experience the most difficulty.

The status of menstrual leave in India

“At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance. Starting today, all women (including transgender people) at Zomato can avail up to 10 days of period leaves in a year”, announced Deepinder Goyal,  founder of India’s leading food delivery app Zomato, via a blog post in August 2020. They marked their place as one of the biggest companies in the country to endorse a diverse and inclusive work culture.

While the decision was lauded by many, it also faced backlash from some, igniting several conversations around menstruation and the importance of menstrual leave, both online as well as offline. About a year later, in November 2021, Byju’s, an Indian educational technology venture, followed Zomato’s lead and incorporated twelve days of period leave in its annual work calendar.

Menstrual leave has sparked discussions time and again, proving to be a topic that is often approached more as a debate to be won rather than a conversation to be held. While the dialogue has become increasingly widespread in the recent past, menstruation continues to be a taboo for many.

From understanding its debilitating physical and mental effects to taking a closer look at all the critical facets of menstruation, here is all you need to know about where this conversation is expected to head.

The stigmatization of menstruation in India

According to Business Insider, out of approximately 40 crore menstruators in India, less than 20% use sanitary pads, often turning to unsafe alternatives for period protection, in turn becoming highly vulnerable to serious health issues.

Studies report that nearly 71% of adolescent girls in India continue to be unaware of menstruation right up till they get their first period which then becomes a major contributor to their lack of confidence and self-esteem. From families to medical practitioners, menstruators often face neglect when it comes to being taken seriously with regard to menstrual health and challenges such as pain, irregularities and its impact on mental well-being.

As several organizations, campaigns and state-funded initiatives continue to struggle in their fight to spread awareness about menstruation and its physical and mental consequences, the sensitivity around the topic has barely witnessed any significant improvement.

Source: Pexels
A menstruator showing a stained sanitary pad to the camera

A brief history of menstrual leave

Originating nearly a century ago in Soviet Russia, the idea of menstrual leave gained traction amongst the labor unions in Japan in the 1920s, gradually finding its place in the country’s law around the year 1947. Now, according to Article 68 of the Labor Standards Law of Japan, menstruators who find it extremely difficult to work during their period can request their employers to grant them leave. The policy however, leaves it to individual organizations to decide the number of days that are permitted and whether or not they are paid.

70 years later, the policy still stands strong and has also been brought into consideration by other countries in Asia. South Korea implemented period leaves in 1953, and the concept is also a part of Taiwan, Indonesia and Zambia’s employment policies.

Understanding menstrual leave and its increasing importance

'Menstrual leave cannot be looked at in a silo of just the days of menstruation because we need to start looking at menstruation as a cyclical thing. It's not a five-day thing. It is happening throughout the month”, says Pratyusha Varanasi, a former menstrual educator from Boondh, a leading period sustainability and policy programming organization in India. This stands in contrast to the companies that offer just twelve days of menstrual leave a year or one day a month.

The intensity of emotional and physical discomfort that periods bring varies from individual to individual. Keeping this in mind,  menstrual health and hygiene educationists are now rampantly advocating the importance of monthly period leave policies in the professional paradigm.

“An important caveat here is that menstruators should have the freedom to choose when to exercise this leave. It should not be gate-kept to only one day a month or to only the days of bleeding. Because it is erratic- [menstrual] pain and discomfort and stress are erratic”, emphasizes Varanasi.

The biological significance of menstrual leave

“Menstrual leaves are important because, unlike regular working days, working on these days is an added stress- to take ownership of your health while being accountable for your work, that juggle is not easy”, remarks Srishti Mehta, a content specialist from The Red Pen, an educational consultancy based in Mumbai.

According to a 2017 survey by Maya, a smart health assistant for women, 50% of menstruators in India go through irregular period cycles and nearly 70% experience exhausting cramps, fatigue and issues related to bloating.

Apart from these symptoms, menstruation can also trigger other disorders such as  Premenstrual Exacerbation (PME), Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), Primary Dysmenorrhea and Secondary Dysmenorrhea.

“As a Primary Dysmenorrhea suffering woman, every month I experience painful cramps, low blood pressure and low sugar levels, nausea, headache, dizziness, and sometimes even diarrhea. This condition has, over the years, forced me to stay at home during my period cycles and that has disrupted the 'said-normal' for me” observes Mehta, stressing on the need for period leaves.

She also discusses how having a menstrual leave policy in place creates a safe space for menstruating employees in their workplace. This does not just acknowledge the trauma periods can have on an individual but also supports the prioritization of self-care, she reiterates.

“There is no stress or hassle of going through the tedious process of applying for a leave if a structure is already in place to deal with this specific, one of its kind leave”, she explains.

The economic significance of menstrual leave

As the conversation around periods and their impact on people's professional and emotional well-being continues to become bigger in terms of reach, inclusivity and methodology, here are some economic benefits this decision can bring for an organization.

1. Improved retention

The transformation that COVID-19 brought in people’s perspective about striving for work-life balance has motivated younger professionals to seek jobs that, in addition to paying well, also keep employee health and happiness above everything else.

“Especially people who have any sort of struggle when it comes to their cycle are looking for organizations that are understanding of it. I think overall the culture is shifting towards setting those boundaries for yourself and recognizing that this is non-negotiable for me”, adds Varanasi while discussing the perils of working in a capitalistic structure that usually demands productivity at great personal cost.

“It is very necessary for us to become ambassadors of our own health because nobody else will”, they remark. Inclusive policies make organizations look adaptive which could improve employee loyalty and retention in the long-run.

2. Enhanced productivity

According to a recent interview by Forbes, severe period pain can drastically obstruct productivity at work. Adding menstrual leave to the company policy can prove to be a very progressive step to prevent people from overexerting themselves or forcing themselves to “work through the pain.” Providing accommodations and leave where necessary helps take this pressure off of people and plan accordingly with their teams so that work is not disrupted.

When employees notice their concerns are heard and catered to, they are more likely to feel motivated to perform better.

Source: Pexels
A menstruator going through period cramps

Why talking about it is necessary and how you can initiate the conversation

“Companies that do offer these leaves should be more vocal about their decision to encourage this movement further”, comments Anushree Arora, a freelance content writer from Mumbai, who has formerly worked with both- organizations that offered period leaves as well as organizations that did not.

Trying to challenge the societal shame associated with menstruation and starting a conversation about it in order to make your organization become more empathetic towards its menstruating employees can be an unnerving ordeal.

But the going gets smoother as you continue to learn, research, and discuss more without shying away or giving up. Some steps that can help you and your colleagues come up with a holistic approach to designing a menstrual leave policy can include:

1. Collect data that is relevant and understandable

Stating clear facts and figures about the number of people that are physically and emotionally affected by menstruation can be a solid beginning for keeping your case. Figures not only add weight to the argument but are also factually unobjectionable.

Starting a Slack channel or a newsletter that is informative and accessible to all employees whether or not they menstruate will help you in educating and spreading awareness.

2. Get in touch with your seniors

Being the torchbearer of an entire policy reform can feel overwhelming and may also invite backlash. Reach out to your senior officials and direct managers to have an open conversation with them. Put forth your ideas and suggest strategies that are feasible and effective.

Bringing colleagues from every level of your company’s hierarchy on the same page will eliminate clashes and conflicts of interest

3. Compassionate communication is a must

Once you’ve come up with a robust solution, go ahead and share it with everyone, especially your menstruating employees and be open to incorporating feedback. Assuring your team that yours is an organization which puts employee well-being above everything else will make them feel cared for and welcomed.

Making sure the non-menstruating population of your team also knows and respects the importance of this decision will lead to negligible chances of any future conflicts.  

The impact of work from home on menstrual leave policies

“Just because we have been menstruating for years doesn't mean we are 'habituated' to pain and can suffer in silence and deliver work at the same time”, shares Mehta, underlining the importance of active conversations around period leave in the professional space. She firmly believes that openly discussing menstrual policies in such spaces can prove to be empowering for menstruators and enlightening for their colleagues.

The workplace was built by men, for men, but no more. Women, trans and gender non-conforming people can no longer be a second thought when it comes to designing workplace policies. The emphasis has been shifting towards diversity and inclusion and that does not end with hiring. It needs to be an ongoing practice where everyone’s needs and wants are taken into consideration to build procedures and policies that create a more conducive and supportive work environment.