Menstrual leave: Why some companies are offering time off for periods

·7 min read
This pain is so exhaustive (gpointstudio via Getty Images)

The job descriptions at CHANI, a queer- and feminist-led company that makes a popular astrology app, list a variety of perks to entice potential employees: salaries starting at $80,000 a year, an annual tech stipend, a nice 401(k) match and four months of paid parental leave. The Los Angeles-based company also offers a more unusual benefit: "unlimited menstrual leave for people with uteruses."

The policy is one example of a growing push to eliminate the taboo around periods and recognize the physical discomforts menstruation can cause. "It's incredibly painful to have a uterus, and yet from a young age, we're taught to push through this pain and keep working," said Sonya Passi, the company's CEO.

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CHANI implemented its menstrual leave policy so that employees don't have to deplete sick or vacation hours "to deal with a fact of life," she said. "Folks just need to let their supervisor know as soon as they decide to take the menstrual leave, and it's an automatic yes - there isn't an approval process." About 60% of the company's employees have used the policy at least once, Passi noted.

Menstrual leave isn't common in the United States, but it exists elsewhere around the globe: Spain is about to become the first Western country to offer menstrual leave, allowing women with severe pain to stay home three days per month. And such policies have long existed in countries including Japan, China, Indonesia and Zambia. But, U.S. legal and labor experts noted, it's a complicated issue with many possible ramifications.

Jessica Barnack-Tavlaris, a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey, led a study looking at Americans' attitudes about such policies. In research published in 2019, she and her co-authors found that 45% of the 600 people surveyed would support menstrual leave in the United States, and an additional 16.3 percent would if it met certain conditions - for example, if it was unpaid and if the menstruation symptoms required medical intervention.

The most common themes that emerged among respondents, Barnack-Tavlaris said, were the potential for such policies to support menstruators and - opposite that - concerns about fairness toward men.

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Menstrual leave is "truly a very forward-thinking and progressive step," said Cindy Duke, an OB/GYN based in Las Vegas "For so long, menstruation has been associated with shame," she said, and opening a dialogue can lead people who are suffering in silence to claim the time they need. It can also encourage them to seek help from a doctor for debilitating symptoms.

Between 15 to 25% of people who menstruate will experience moderate to severe menstrual cramps, according to Siobán Harlow, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Harlow studies the history of menstruation-related workplace stigma. Ten to 15% of menstruators will have pain that's not very well-controlled with NSAIDs such as naproxen, she added. Some people have conditions including endometriosis or uterine fibroids that exacerbate pain, while others suffer from very heavy menstrual bleeding - all of which can make working difficult.

"Menstruation itself is not a disorder," Barnack-Tavlaris said. "But there are disorders related to the menstrual cycle. For those who have excessive bleeding or extreme pain, work flexibility is certainly going to help alleviate that distress and help them achieve well-being."

Barnack-Tavlaris emphasized, however, that it's important to pair a new menstrual leave policy with companywide education. "Otherwise, we feed into this myth that people who menstruate can't function, or that they're emotionally unstable and unfit for the workplace," she said.

Nuvento, a global software company with U.S. locations in Kansas and New Jersey, recently announced that employees can take one day of menstrual leave per month. Though the policy is very new, workers have so far welcomed it, said digital content manager Susan Margret Correya: "They feel heard, and more comfortable."

Last year, Modibodi, an Australian company that makes period underwear, launched a policy that offers 10 days of paid leave annually for reasons relating to menstruation, menopause and miscarriage. "I truly believe that to allow women to fully participate in the workforce, we have to remove all the barriers," chief executive Kristy Chong said. "We know that women are suffering - these issues are very normal and common, and they can be debilitating both mentally and physically."

Modibodi's staff is predominantly female, and workers who want to use a day just text or email their manager that they'd like to access their "MMM" leave. The policy has increased engagement staff-wide, Chong said, and "removed that shame and fear" around telling a boss you need a day off due to cramps. She's not worried about complications such as potential loss of productivity correlated with more absences. "I think we're kidding ourselves if we don't understand that these people, when they're suffering, they're out anyway," she said. "Their brains are not mentally there."

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Experts say menstrual leave is a complicated issue with numerous layers, including potential legal and labor ramifications. Menstrual leave policies are different from sick leave because they apply only to menstruators - and, more specifically, those who are of menstruating age and have an intact reproductive system, said Melinda Malecki, an attorney with Malecki Brooks Law Group in Chicago. Employers can implement policies as they see fit, so long as they're not illegal and don't create illegal discrimination, such as policies that discriminate based on race, gender or age, she said.

In this case, it's possible that men could argue that they're being discriminated against, since such policies provide a benefit to menstruation only. Legislation at the state or federal level would most likely be required or advisable to protect an employer from a possible discrimination claim, Malecki said.

There's also the issue of privacy. As Malecki put it, "Would an employee be required to show proof of menstruation and, if so, how? Awkward to say the least."

Harvey Linder, a labor and employment attorney with Culhane Meadows in Atlanta who advises companies on civil rights compliance issues, said he would advise companies against instituting a menstrual leave policy at this point. "I think it's fraught with more problems than it solves," he said.

Linder worries that a woman who taps into menstrual leave might experience retaliation, such as being overlooked for a promotion because she misses more days than her non-menstruating colleagues. "There may not even be discrimination or retaliation against the female for the promotion, but she's going to believe that, and she's going to be demoralized," he said. Or morale might drop among those not entitled to extra leave time.

Plus, "it's more time off for employees, so the cost of production increases," he said.

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If you're a manager considering implementing a menstrual leave policy, start by asking your team what they want, advised Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity, a Toronto-based consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion. Her company offers an annual stipend to help workers lessen the financial burden of menstruation and menopause. It can be used, for example, on menstrual cups or reusable pads, or on hormone treatment or cooling products for hot flashes

Employers that do choose to implement a menstrual leave policy should make sure that menstrual discrimination is added to their anti-discrimination policies, she said. It's also important to consider privacy. Some companies code menstrual leave as a sick day, for example, which can help encourage workers to take advantage of the time off and can be a safety factor for trans men who are still menstruating.

There are additional ways to support those who menstruate, said Sarah Verbiest, such as office space to rest or nap or free menstrual hygiene products in restrooms. Verbiest is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Social Work and executive director of the Center for Maternal & Infant Health.

Giving all workers sufficient sick leave is crucial, she added. In fact, if companies have generous leave policies, designating extra days for menstrual-related reasons may not even be necessary as long as employees "understand that caring for themselves during your period would count."

Harlow also emphasized that those in positions to create menstrual leave policies need to remember that historically, menstruation has been used as an argument for women's inferiority and as an excuse for their exclusion. Menstrual leave, therefore, "potentially creates another point of stigma," she said. "I think we are still working, in many contexts, for equity. And so, I think there would need to be careful thought about how such policies are developed."

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