Menstrual leave in the UK – a period of change?

As part of a wave of women’s health reforms, Spain has announced that it is planning to introduce specific paid medical leave (potentially up to 5 days a month in cases of severe pain – with a doctor’s note) for people who suffer from period pain. Those eligible would receive statutory sick pay from the first day of sickness and would be protected from retaliation. Will this lead to international employers introducing similar policies in other countries in which they operate and, if so, what should they be thinking about?

Women’s health is the subject of increasing focus by both international businesses and governments. This can be seen in the spotlight on menopause support and employers introducing women’s specific health policies (for example, a Polish headquartered gaming platform, GOG, recently started offering menstrual leave to be used whenever period pain occurs – with no limit on the period of time that can be taken).

The growing discussion on women’s health in the workplace can help reduce stigma around women’s health matters and, in turn, help employers retain key talent by offering support.  There’s limited data on the impact of menstruation on employees and it’s important to note that menstruation does not have a negative impact on all menstruators. However, some studies and data do suggest that employees would benefit from extra support in this area. The period charity Bloody Good Period surveyed menstruators in 2021 and 73% reported that they have struggled to do their work in the way they want to because of their period. Additionally, many notoriously difficult to diagnose women’s health conditions can cause pain that may impact the ability of an individual to work; for example, it takes on average eight years for endometriosis to be diagnosed – a condition that is thought to affect up to 10% of people with a cervix. Giving those experiencing pain a clear signal that they will be supported may lessen the stigma around period pain.

On the flip side, however, there are concerns that specific menstrual leave policies may actually increase stigma in this area by creating a perception that menstruators are not capable of working consistently and therefore require a paid leave benefit. This can be a challenging narrative for employers to address whilst aiming to demonstrate the capabilities of women and support female talent. Unless the internal messaging is supportive, it’s possible that employers will see a low uptake of these leave policies in practice. A Japanese government survey in 2017 found that only 0.9% of female employees claimed any of the period leave they are entitled to, possibly due to the stigma around discussing periods.

In the absence of any specific legal requirement to do so, it will be important for employers to thoroughly assess the pros and cons of introducing a menstrual leave policy. Whilst these policies may help reduce stigma around menstruation, and create a more supportive workplace for menstruators, it’s important for employers to consider:

How menstruation leave would interact with other policies in the UK: Rather than introducing a stand-alone menstrual leave, it may be more appropriate for any absences to be managed under a sickness absence policy (perhaps with a specific mention of menstruation) to ensure that menstruators are provided with the same benefits and conditions (i.e., pay and requirements for sick notes, which in the UK allow employees to self-certify for absence for up to 7 days) during their absence as employees who are absent for reasons not related to menstruation. Managing via this route can also limit the risks of:

a) putting a limitation on the number of days leave that will be accommodated for absences that are related to menstruation, which may be considered arbitrary and, depending on the specific health issue, may be appropriate to manage in a different way (for example, long term or chronic health issues that employers may make reasonable adjustments or further accommodations in relation to, which may include allowing longer periods of absence); and

b) employees feeling that they have to disclose that their absence is related to menstruation, which they may wish to keep private.

The menstrual literacy and culture within the workplace: Any policies will only be effective if there is a clear culture of openness and support for those who menstruate in the workplace. This can include supplying menstrual products in workplace bathrooms (a small, and relatively inexpensive, gesture to make employees more comfortable) and ensuring that teams responsible for any policy implementation have an understanding of how to support menstruators (which may be achieved by specific training).

At this stage, we can expect employers to be watching the Spanish reforms with interest to consider any useful lessons learned for their own diversity, equality and inclusion strategies.

For more information on women’s health matters in the workplace, see our Women’s Health in the Workplace Q&A & Resources article here.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.