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The Painful Truth About Menstrual Leave

Aug 6 2020 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her), Graphics by Sissi Chen (She/Her)

“It’s like being stabbed in the uterus with a dull knife.” 

“Like a jackhammer just ramming into your lower half. One minute you’re fine and the next you’re in absolute agony.” 

“A cat, clawing your way out of your uterus.”

“Put all of your intestines and other lower-organs in a vice and squeeze on and off for about three days.”

These are only a few of the comments you’ll find posted in the Reddit forum: “What do period cramps feel like to you?” 

For billions of people who menstruate, period cramps are only one of the many unfortunate side effects that accompany a monthly bodily function. Menstrual pain – known in the medical community as dysmenorrhea - is different for everyone, but common symptoms include painful cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and sometimes even diarrhea. For those of you reading this who menstruate yourselves, I’m sure this lengthy list of symptoms is no surprise to you considering that painful periods are incredibly common. However, for some menstruators, period pain goes far beyond uncomfortable cramping; one in every five people who menstruate have period pain so severe that it interferes with mundane activities and can make getting to work seem impossible.

Recent years have seen lots of conversation about how to tackle this issue, and menstruators have proposed a possible solution: menstrual leave. In implementing this policy, menstruators would be offered a number of paid days off each month, depending on the severity of their period pain.

By allowing people to take time off to recoup from the effects of menstruation, they would be able to prioritize their menstrual health without the fear of missed opportunities in the workplace or dipping into their allocated sick days. However, while menstrual leave may have been originally proposed to help liberate menstruators, is it possible that in reality it would have the opposite effect? In this week’s blog we’re taking a look at menstrual leave policies, how they have been implemented in the past, and what life as a working menstruator could look like in the future.

To most Canadians, menstrual leave may seem like a bizarre proposition, but menstruators in other areas of the world have been long familiar with this idea. In Japan, menstrual leave was introduced back in 1947, allowing those with painful periods to take time off to recover. South Korea then implemented a similar policy in 2001, and, despite pushback from male employees about reverse discrimination, menstruators were granted time off for period-related issues. Other countries have since followed suit: Taiwan, Indonesia, and Zambia all offer menstrual leave to those experiencing period pain.

Menstrual leave policies may seem like a step in the right direction towards equality, but some experts suggest that they may do more harm than good. One complication that menstrual leave presents is the possibility of further stigmatizing menstruation. Naama Bloom, founder and author of HelloFlo – a women’s health resource – highlights that menstruators are already thought to be incapable of making rational decisions during their period, and that providing them with menstrual leave may only add more weight to these stereotypes. She also suggests that those who choose to take time off work when needed may be subject to ridicule by their colleagues, or at the very least be viewed in a different lens. 

Of course, this wouldn’t be true for everyone; some workplaces are incredibly accepting and comfortable with the idea of discussing menstruation-related issues. However, regardless of how one’s colleagues or boss responds to their need for menstrual leave, having to disclose medical information pertaining to your menstrual cycle presents an additional concern of personal privacy.

Potentially the most compelling critique is that menstrual leave policies may have serious implications for menstruators in terms of even landing work in the first place. If employers are legally required to offer additional days off for employees who menstruate, one could suggest that on average, most workplaces would refrain from hiring menstruators altogether.

While the idea of menstrual leave may come from a good place, there seems to be a fair amount of grey area when it comes to the implementation and consequences of such policies. Menstrual pain is undeniably something that many menstruators experience and is a valid reason for not being able to perform at their usual standard – at work, or elsewhere. However, it’s reasonable to question how these policies would impact menstruators in the long run. Yes, in an ideal world anyone experiencing painful periods should be able to prioritize their personal health; however, perhaps we should first focus on continuing to destigmatize menstruation as a whole before opening the door to the possibility of more judgement and scrutiny.

How do you feel about menstrual leave policies? Is this something that you feel would benefit menstruators? Let us know in the comments, we would love to hear from you!