Zambia has introduced 'menstrual leave' for female employees. Should the UK follow suit?

Should women in the UK be given time off work for their period? [Photo: Getty]
Should women in the UK be given time off work for their period? [Photo: Getty]

Crippling stomach cramps, lack of concentration, feeling lethargic, mood swings. As most women will testify periods can leave you feeling pretty grotty.

But can you imagine it being part of the actual law that when you feel like this, you don’t have to go to work. Well, that’s exactly the case in Zambia.

There, women are allowed one paid day off a month as a sort of ‘menstrual leave’. Referred to as ‘Mother’s Day’ the law does not actually specify what the day off is for, but it’s widely understood that the day is reserved for when women are battling the side effects of mother nature’s monthly arrival.

Women can take their day at any point in the month, and do not need to provide a medical explanation to their boss. Any employer who denies one of their female employees the right to time off can actually be prosecuted.

And Zambia aren’t the only country to be offering ‘menstrual leave’ to women workers. Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and parts of China all have similar policies.

So have these countries got the right idea. Is offering ‘menstrual leave’ to female employees a sign of progress and should the UK be following suit?

10% of women suffer such bad period pain they are unable to continue with every day life [Photo: Getty]
10% of women suffer such bad period pain they are unable to continue with every day life [Photo: Getty]

Well, some British companies are taking up the period pain baton. Earlier this year a Bristol-based company announced they were planning to create an official ‘period policy’ designed to allow women to take time off without being stigmatised.

Speaking to the Guardian about the new policy, Bex Baxter, the director of Coexist, said she hoped the move would help make the workplace more efficient and creative.

“I have managed many female members of staff over the years and I have seen women at work who are bent over double because of the pain caused by their periods,” she said.

“Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not class themselves as unwell. And this is unfair. At Coexist we are very understanding. If someone is in pain – no matter what kind – they are encouraged to go home. But, for us, we wanted a policy in place which recognises and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.”

Despite affecting millions of women every month, periods are still often considered off limits in terms of discussion — and women can feel embarrassed to admit the reason they are in pain or feeling poorly. So could putting official legislation in place that actually recognises women’s monthly battles, actually help lift the taboo?

Emma Barnett certainly thinks so. The BBC Radio 5 live presenter revealed last September that a YouGov survey for her programme found that 52% of women had experienced period pain that affected their ability to work, but only 27% had told their bosses that period pain was responsible.

Following the findings a London-based consultant gynaecologist suggested the introduction of ‘menstrual leave’ could help women feel more comfortable in talking to their employers about their period battles and lead to a more productive workplace.

Dr Gedis Grudzinskas believes women should be more open about period pain and employers more understanding.

“Menstruation is normal, but some women suffer terribly and they suffer in silence,” he told the BBC. “I don’t think women should be shy about it, and companies should be accommodating with leave for women who are struggling with painful periods.”

“Menstrual leave would make people feel more happy and comfortable in the workplace, which is a positive thing,” he continued.

“There is also a lack of awareness about when painful periods mean that something is going wrong, like endometriosis. People forget that women make up half the workforce. If they feel supported, it will be a happy and productive workforce.”

But according to a survey by PubMed, just 10% of women suffer ‘pain so bad that they are unable to carry out their usual daily activities on one to three days every month.’ Obviously for those one in ten menstrual leave would be a great solution. But what about women who aren’t terribly affected by their monthlies? Should those of us who are able to chug down a couple of Nurofen plus to counteract their period pain still be entitled to a day on the sofa binge-watching A Place in the Sun?

Which also raises the question of how the policy would be policed. Surely a ‘no questions asked’ day off a month for female employess might be abused by all some? Would we be expected to provide proof that we were actually menstruating? Or that our stomach cramps were bad enough to warrant a duvet day? And what about women who use contraception to put of their period? Are they still entitled to the time off?

Women in Zambia are entitled to one day off a month, should the UK follow suit? [Photo: Getty]
Women in Zambia are entitled to one day off a month, should the UK follow suit? [Photo: Getty]

There’s another, arguably more serious side to the debate as well. With women fighting hard to gain equality in the workplace could introducing paid menstrual leave for women actually have a negative effect? Could this potential new period policy make the divide between men and women bigger? And could this actually lead to an increase in the gender pay gap?

Then there’s the question of how our male counterparts could view this new legislation and whether the fear of how taking the time off will be judged will deter women from actually taking it. According to The Guardian, in Japan a fear of ‘social stigma’ is leading to many women requesting regular time off rather than menstrual leave, concerned about being viewed as ‘weak’ by their male colleagues.

It’s for this reason that Alison* believes it wouldn’t be a good idea for the UK to follow Zambia and introduce menstrual leave to female employees.

“There are a million other things I need leave for, but not that,” she says. “Give me flexible working so I can raise my kids, or study, or care for ageing relatives, but that is tokenism of the most ridiculous kind that achieves nothing and makes women look pathetic.”

Julie* agrees. “I would be embarrassed telling a male boss it was my period day off. And I wouldn’t want to tell my female line manager either for fear of being told to buck up my ideas. If your period is making you feel that unwell, isn’t that what sick leave is for?”

Perhaps Julie is right. All employees should have the right to take time off sick regardless of the reason behind it. If you’re one of the unlucky 10% of women whose time of the month really does render it difficult to work, of course you should be able to skip work, without facing judgement or discrimination for doing so, but equally a male employee should be entitled to take time off every time he gets a killer migraine. So could the solution lie in offering more flexible working for everyone, rather than introducing a policy that’s only going to benefit around half of the workforce?

What do you think? Should the UK introduce menstrual leave for female employees? Let us know @YahooStyleUK

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