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How Menstrual Leave Can Affect Women’s Wellbeing in the Workplace

With menstrual leave becoming a more widely discussed topic, it's important to understand how it can affect women's wellbeing and why it is important.

Pain, crying, bloating and cravings - just some of the treats that await almost every menstruating woman. Although menstruation is one of the most natural functions of the human body, it doesn’t change the fact that many women suffer physically and psychologically during their period.

Though severe symptoms may be manageable in the comfort of one’s own home, going to work and maintaining high standards while your hormones are wreaking havoc on your body can, understandably, prove too challenging for some women.

The good news is that discussions surrounding menstrual leave are becoming more prominent as businesses become more empathetic to women’s needs, and taboos are slowly broken down. Though a tricky field to navigate, there are many reasons why menstrual leave can benefit both women and their employers, not least the improvements to wellbeing.

Breaking Taboos

Menstrual taboos are, unfortunately, still something that women have to deal with in the workplace every day. In some cases, menstrual taboos are strong enough that they have led to a lack of sanitary waste disposal facilities in the workplace, where male bosses are not aware of the legal requirements regarding sanitary bins.

Despite the fact that an estimated 800 million people menstruate every single day, some women feel such stigma around their periods that they hide their menstrual products, for fear that one of their male colleagues may see them. In some extremes, women have even reported anxiety as to whether their lipstick container resembled a tampon too closely.

Menstrual leave is is not necessarily a fast track to eliminating stigma surrounding menstruation; this is evidenced by countries where it is legally available and women still choose not to take advantage of it, with anxieties ranging from job security to scrutiny from their superiors.

However, what menstrual leave does provide is an opportunity for communication between women and their male employers and co-workers, who perhaps are ignorant of the effects menstruation can have on some women.

In order for menstrual leave to be successful in breaking taboos, it cannot be designed by men for women. By involving women themselves in strategies concerning menstrual leave, women are also given more autonomy in their own wellbeing.

Efficient and ethical policies surrounding menstrual leave can help normalise the realities of menstruation in the workplace, and ensure that women do not fear for their jobs should they need to take time off work.

Preventing Medical Complications

The symptoms of menstruation are arguably stigmatised just as much as the concept of menstruating itself. The image of a woman bent over her desk in pain as she struggles through the workday is now almost a stereotype of what it is like to menstruate at work.

It is thought that 80% of women experience cramps or pain during their period, and yet only 50% of them seek medical advice. With studies showing that women’s pain is consistently treated as less important than men’s by health professionals, it should come as little surprise that so many women still accept excruciating pain as a normality.

Dysmenorrhoea (or period cramps) does not always stem from health complications, of course. Yet there are a variety of conditions that can manifest themselves in menstrual symptoms; endometriosis for example is a condition that affects 1 in 10 menstruating women in the UK alone.

Due to menstrual stigma, is it not uncommon for women to go years (sometimes into their 40s) without a diagnosis, by which point their fertility could already be compromised.

One of the biggest culprits of such late diagnoses when it comes to conditions like this is the normalisation of pain during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Menstrual leave does not solve any underlying medical conditions on its own, but it does help to spread the awareness that women do not need to suffer unbearable pain during their period, and could encourage them to seek medical advice for their symptoms.

Even for women that suffer from ‘normal’ menstrual cramps, menstrual leave can help alleviate any pressure that might be felt to remain at work during the more painful days of their period.

Ensuring Good Mental Health

For many businesses, mental health is finally being treated as a priority when implementing staff wellbeing strategies. Yet menstruation remains an underappreciated factor, and can be a mental health minefield for women, particularly for those already prone to depression or anxiety.

Unfortunately, the real mental health implications of menstruation are often buried under the age-old stereotypes of the ‘hormonal’ woman. These stereotypes did not die out in the locker room: many people genuinely remain unaware of the hormonal changes that a woman goes through during her menstrual cycle.

During a woman’s premenstrual stage, the hormone Oestrogen is lower than at any other point during the month, which can have a significant effect on her serotonin levels (the chemical responsible for affecting the mood). The go-to joke, therefore, that an upset women is ‘clearly on her period’ has far more weight behind it than a snide attempt at humour.

Anxiety and stress can occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle even without significant chemical changes happening to her body.

The pressure of maintaining productivity while feeling uncomfortable, irritable or in pain can severely impact someone’s mental health at work, especially if they cannot confide in their boss. Even the worry of bleeding through a company uniform (or even one’s own clothes) can add unnecessary anxiety to a woman’s workday.

Though there are plenty of women who do not experience any significant mood swings or anxiety during their period, menstrual leave ensures that those that do have the opportunity to prioritise their mental health. Not only does this ensure their wellbeing, but it can also increase productivity in the long-run, as women will likely not feel as fatigued by any mental health challenges they may face.

Menstrual Leave is Not Sick Leave

Menstrual leave is an important issue for women in the workplace. However, one of the challenges facing it is the concept that menstrual leave could be included in a woman’s sick leave allowance. Although on the surface this may seem like a logical solution, it only further perpetuates negative stereotypes surrounding menstruation.

Though it may come with unpleasant symptoms, menstruation is not a sickness and should not be treated as such. In fact, the presence of a menstrual cycle usually shows only that a woman is in good health, and that her body is functioning as it should.

Treating menstrual leave as sick leave also does not account for the many different types of periods a woman can have. They are so varied that many women themselves may find it difficult to relate to even their best friend’s menstrual symptoms.

Not every woman will need to take time off work during her period, and there is no reason to suggest that this system will be taken advantage of by those that do. At the Victorian Women's Trust offices in Melbourne (where paid menstrual leave has recently been implemented), the total number of days taken off in the last 18 months has amounted to just seven or eight.

At its core, menstrual leave is about establishing a better work-life balance, and recognising the difficulties that some women face during this time. Even introducing this concept into the workplace helps to break down boundaries -- encouraging conversation that will help to eliminate stigma, and benefit women all over the world.

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