Spain Is the First Country in Europe to Offer Paid Menstrual Leave - Should the UK Be Next?

Tampon and Calendar
Tampon and Calendar

Editor's Note: We at POPSUGAR recognise that people of many genders and identities have menstrual cycles. This particular story includes language from experts who generally refer to people with menstrual cycles as women.

On 16 Feb., Spain became the first European country to offer paid menstrual leave, meaning employees can call in sick to work if they are suffering from debilitating period symptoms. According to Politico, the bill was approved by 185 votes against 154, as Spain follows Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Zambia in implementing more accommodating measures for women's health.

The move coincides with research that women's productivity is greatly reduced during their time of the month. A study, published in the BMJ Open journal, found that almost nine days of productivity are lost a year due to women feeling they need to be at work despite struggling with period symptoms. A huge 81 percent admitted to their period negatively affecting their output and, when they did call in sick, only one in five gave the real bloody reason.

Menstrual leave is not a law in the UK, but as someone who has suffered from period symptoms since the age of 13, I think it's a conversation that needs to happen if we are ever going to truly progress in the workplace. Now I'm a firm believer in women standing by the phrase "anything you can do, we can do bleeding", but sometimes the side effects that come with that monthly visitor mean we need to cut ourselves some slack and listen to our bodies.

"Women are socially conditioned to play the martyr, shrouded in shame that something we biologically cannot avoid might get us a reputation for being sickly, difficult, or the "weaker sex"."

The notion of presenteeism, even in an era when a large proportion of us have continued to work some days from home, is still rife; whether this means logging onto your laptop or making your way to an IRL shift. Women are socially conditioned to play the martyr, shrouded in shame that something we biologically cannot avoid might get us a reputation for being sickly, difficult, or the "weaker sex".

How many times have you sat in offices or worked through a gruelling shift when another colleague has called in sick because they feel a bit of a sniffle coming on? I have sat at desks with hot water bottles while counting down the minutes until my next paracetamol, cried on lunch breaks, and zoned out in meetings because all my energy is focused on the thumping pain in my uterus. It's fair to say, my usual work ethic wavered during these times. Yet call in sick just for my period? Never! I once even paid £50 for a taxi to drive me to the office because the thought of getting on the train was just too much, and not turning up was unfathomable. This is why menstrual leave is so important; it gives women the space to make their wellbeing a priority.

The stigma around periods still astounds me, yet menstrual leave is a step in the right direction to normalising women's health. It offers a reprieve for those who suffer from symptoms, not to mention other reproductive conditions like endometriosis, while encouraging thoughtful discussion around how best to encourage productivity at work.

Of course, a law of this nature does not come without debate. Not everyone suffers from period symptoms to the same degree, but isn't this the same with any illness necessitating sick leave? There are also concerns about discrimination in the workplace and whether taking menstrual sick leave could impact performance reviews negatively. When the gender pay gap is still wide - 8.3 percent between full-time employees as of April 2022 - there is an argument that this law is a backwards step for gender equality. But surely the flexibility will encourage more women to stay in the workforce longer thanks to more considerate environments and, therefore, rise up the career ladder in the long term?

"Companies who offer menstrual leave need to implement it sensitively and thoughtfully."

Of course, companies who offer menstrual leave need to implement it sensitively and thoughtfully. Isolating those who don't menstruate, like trans women or those who've gone through early menopause, and leaving them exposed to scrutiny or intrusive questions is not the way forward. Yet offering menstrual leave does not mean it's mandatory. Not all women will need to use the sick days, in the same way not everyone uses their given quota of company sick days each year. And let's remember, period symptoms are no holiday. A sick day is needed to curl up under the duvet or to see a gynaecologist, not to go for a pub lunch.

Women have had to succumb to a man's workplace for years. The temperature in offices, for example, is often based on a historic standard that considers the metabolic rate of men. The burden of expensive childcare has often fallen to women with inflexible employers forcing us to choose between careers and parenting. Not to mention the fact that one in two women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace. So, if we need to take the odd sick day to recuperate and be kind to ourselves, then I don't think that's too much to ask.