Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Spain is planning to introduce a law to give women suffering from severe period pain at least three days’ paid medical leave each month.

A number of UK charities have called on the government to introduce similar legislation her. Although the government is planning to develop a Women’s Health Strategy for England, it is unlikely to impose legal rules on employers in the near future.

However, there are good reasons for businesses to provide better support for women now.

Why is it a workplace issue?

According to the most recent data, nearly three quarters of women aged 16 to 64 are in work. Many businesses have realised that women need particular support during the peri-menopause and menopause but haven’t considered whether they need to put similar policies in place to support those women who suffer from debilitating periods.

Evidence suggests that many women have pushed on through the pain even though it impacts their ability to focus and work productively. Some are too embarrassed to mention it to their managers, others don’t want to be seen as “weak” or inferior to men and if reporting in sick every month, will it trigger an absence reviews and warning.

But things might be changing. Younger women are much less embarrassed by people knowing they are having a period.

There’re also signs of a wider change in society. Manufacturers advertising sanitary products are less squeamish than they used to be. Earlier this year, the government published the results of its Women’s Health – Let’s talk about it survey which examined the women’s experiences of dealing with five key health issues, one of which was menstrual health. It found that around 1 in 3 women said they felt comfortable talking about health issues in their workplace, and 1 in 2 said their current or previous workplace had been supportive with regards to health issues.

“create new policies to better support women in work, such as paid leave and counselling for miscarriage and baby loss, and reasonable adjustments for women who are going through the menopause, or living with painful gynaecological conditions.”

Women’s Health – Let’s talk about it’ survey

Is menstrual pain a disability?

Potentially –  if the root cause is due to one of the underlying medical conditions. We are waiting for cases to be reported. The legal test is whether an individual has “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” If they can clear this hurdle, their employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments. This might include adjusting triggers in their absence management policies.

We are seeing an increasing number of women with severe menopausal symptoms bringing claims as a disability through the Equality Act. It’s possible that we’ll see similar challenges around debilitating period pain and associated symptoms as women become more comfortable discussing these.

But, even if menstrual symptoms aren’t serious enough to amount to a disability, they may still impact on staff performance.

What can employers do?

Break down the existing prejudices. Periods and the associated pain are not a taboo topic and should be talked about in the same way that people discuss other health problems.

Be reasonable

Women suffering extreme symptoms may phone in sick during their periods. They may complain of stomach ache or other general symptoms rather than expressly referring to menstrual problems. Therefore, before triggering your formal absence management policy, have a sensitive conversation to find out if there is an underlying reason for their regular absence (or even irregular absence as not all women have periods on a fixed cycle or experience the same levels of pain each month). If it is related to their periods, consider making some adjustments to the trigger points in the policy and/or allowing women to work more flexibly during this time (if that’s possible).

Be flexible

Periods affect women in different ways and to different degrees. Some women may need immediate access to a toilet because of a heavy flow or to a hot water bottle (or over the counter medication) to sooth cramps.

Are there any changes you can make to support staff to continue to work rather than phone in sick? Can they work at home, or make up their hours at some other time? This won’t be possible for all jobs but it might be worth thinking ahead about how you might be able to accommodate flexible working for a few days each month.

Be supportive

Try and be supportive, rather than judgemental. Don’t bring your own experience into the discussion (or that of your friends, wife or girlfriend). Find out what you can do to help.

Do you need a policy?

It might be helpful to develop a policy so that your female staff understand what support is available to them and who to approach for help. This should help to create a positive and more productive working environment and encourage women to speak more openly about “that time of the month”.

28th May 2022

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