Voices: Spain is the first western country to give women menstrual leave – why can’t we have this in the UK?

·3-min read
The move comes amid a wider conversation on treating menstruation as a health condition
The move comes amid a wider conversation on treating menstruation as a health condition

Spain’s plan to give women suffering from painful periods paid menstrual leave shows the extent to which workplace changes are sweeping across Europe – but also highlights how far behind the UK is, too.

The pandemic has triggered many workplace changes, one being the onus on employee wellbeing and mental health. We’ve already seen office shifts sweeping across Europe including Belgium and Portugal amending their laws to reflect the “right to disconnect” so that employers cannot contact employees outside of contracted hours. In the United Kingdom, 60 companies will soon take part in a trial of a four-day working week from this summer.

Now, Spain plans to introduce menstrual leave in the workplace, which – if approved – will mark a major European milestone.

The reform is part of a set of proposals around reproductive health that intends to offer three days of menstrual leave a month (with a doctor’s note) for women who experience severe period pain. The draft bill, along with other provisions, entitles people experiencing excruciating and incapacitating period pain up to five days of paid sick leave each month.

The move comes amid a wider conversation on treating menstruation as a health condition and combatting the habit of employees working whilst unwell.

Menstruation can have a massive strain on our bodies and well-being, which can make it difficult to continue working.

In our Mental Health Index at LifeWorks, we found that nearly half of UK employees (47 per cent) reported doing their job when feeling unwell at least one day per week. There is a clear stigma around employees taking sick days and it is even more heightened for women’s health including menstruation and menopause.

If menstrual leave is approved, employers should ensure it does not create a backlash towards women in the workplace, and that employees who do experience period pain feel comfortable seeking medical support.

What’s more, employers and employees themselves need to recognise when they are too ill to do their job. The main sign is that one simply cannot do the tasks being set for them. This could include difficulty concentrating or being unable to lift the items required during manual labour. In extreme circumstances, employees may even become a risk to themselves or others if they continue to work.

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As more people work from home, there is the trap of thinking that people can work while unwell because they’re at home. Working from home is simply a location change. The need for self-care is still as important, and so is the option to work out a plan that works for the employee as well as the workplace. Having a plan where employee health is supported, and work is sustainable, is key.

Landmark changes such as Spain’s “menstrual leave” reflects the growing awareness around employee wellbeing. But if we want to truly prioritise the wellbeing of employees, then wellbeing must be integrated into work culture at every stage. It cannot depend on a single action.

Paula Allen is Senior Vice-President of Research and Total Wellbeing at LifeWorks

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