How menstrual leave can create more equitable workplaces
In Zambia and a handful of other countries, women are entitled to time off during their period, demonstrating how workplaces can be made more inclusive for women and thereby enhance female workforce participation.
In 2015, Zambia introduced a menstrual leave policy to enable women to cope better with menstrual pain.
For over 20 years, Susan Makandy has had mixed feelings about the 28th day of every month. On one hand, she is happy because it is payday; on the other, it signals the onset of a debilitating first day of her monthly period.
“I am regular, so I know every 28 days, like clockwork, I get my period. [The first day is] the most difficult as I get the whole gamut of pains—headaches, stomach cramps, nausea, and, of course, it brings on a bad mood,” she says.
To cope at work, Makandy, who is an accountant at a private brokerage firm, used to take a literal handful of painkillers and turn to home remedies like drinking black tea and eating a large amount of fresh pineapple to get through the day. On the days she was too unwell, she took leave, often eating into half her annual quota.
While there are no studies to indicate how many women in Zambia suffer from period pain, American research suggests the pain may be severe enough to interfere with daily activities, including jobs, for as much as 20% of women. Conditions like endometriosis and uterine fibroids can exacerbate the pain and inability to work.
Eight years ago, Makandy’s circumstances changed. She can now take a day’s leave each month to help cope with day one of her menstrual pain. Under local law, she will not lose the day’s pay; nor does she have to visit a doctor or ask her manager to sign off on the leave.
Alongside a small but growing number of countries around the world, Zambia, in 2015, introduced a formal menstrual leave policy, dubbed ‘Mother’s Day’, to enable women to cope better with menstrual pain.
“It’s not a panacea to all the things that go with having menses, but it helps women like me in the workforce to cope with the discomfort,” Makandy says.
Charting the benefits of 'Mother's Day'
Mother’s Day’—even though it applies to all women, whether they have children or not—is a policy embedded in Zambia’s Employment Code Act. It operates on an informal basis, with women simply allowed to take a day’s leave each month without needing to produce a medical certificate or even an explanation for the absence.
Flexibility enables women to work when they’re at their best, not their worst, and be more productive as a result.
Proponents of menstrual leave argue that it is a necessary step towards gender equality in the workplace, since periods can be debilitating and likely lead to mental health issues. The provision of menstrual leave can also raise the awareness that periods are a natural and important aspect of women's health.
“In the long run, our mental and physical health benefits from the recovery [time],” Makandy says.
Ernest Lungu, director of gender and rights protection in Zambia’s Gender Division, a government department responsible for coordinating and monitoring the effective implementation of gender-related policies, says a primary goal of Mother’s Day is caring for women’s physical and mental health. “It does provide for more equity in the workplace but also looks at the wellbeing of women.”
The policy is enforced at a national level, he says, to ensure every employer in every sector is obliged to provide menstrual leave. “It’s a legal requirement, so any employer who does not comply is in contempt and liable for prosecution.”
There are benefits for employers, too, largely in the form of higher productivity. In the largest study of its kind, published in BMJ Open, a 2019 survey of more than 32,000 women aged 15-45 in the Netherlands found presenteeism—lost productivity when employees are not fully functioning due to illness or injury—during menstruation accounts for nine days of lost productivity per person each year. According to the researchers, two-thirds of the surveyed women “wished they had greater flexibility in their tasks and working hours… during their periods”.
Such flexibility enables women to work when they’re at their best, not their worst, and be more productive as a result. While there may be extra costs such as hiring temporary replacements, these can be offset by the overall reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, and increased productivity.
Menstrual leave policies also help create a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture. By recognising and accommodating the needs of women, employers send a message that they value and support their employees, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and loyalty. Menstrual leave policies can also be seen as progressive and socially responsible, burnishing the image of the employers.
History and prevalence of menstrual leave
Despite the potential benefits, only one country in Europe, Spain, has instituted a menstrual leave policy in the past decade. The Spanish policy, introduced in February this year, entitles women experiencing period pain to three days of leave per month, and two additional days in exceptional cases. The country’s social security system, and not the employers, covers the cost, and workers must produce a medical certificate for each absence.
"Zambia should be proud that it is only one of six countries in the world with this policy, and the only one in Africa, but it’s like, once the policy was embedded in legislation, a box was ticked and everyone just happily moved on."
Globally, menstrual leave has been around for some time—but it is not too common, appearing in the employment law ledgers of just a handful of countries. In 1922, the Soviet Union enacted protective labour laws to guard the menstrual health of female workers. In 1947 in Japan and in 1953 in South Korea, one day of paid menstrual leave per month was granted. In 2002, Taiwanese women were allocated three extra days of sick leave for menstruation. Indonesia began giving women two days off per month during menstruation in 2003. Menstrual leave policies have also been introduced in China’s Anhui province and India’s Bihar and Kerala provinces.
Private companies, too, are stepping up to fill the gap to attract and retain quality female talent. Indian food delivery start-up Zomato offers employees up to 10 days of paid menstrual leave a year, joining a handful of organisations that seek to challenge India’s entrenched taboos around menstruation. Nuvento, a US-based global software company, gives employees menstrual leave for one day each month.
In Australia, somewhat of a global leader in this area, some organisations implement menstrual policies beyond just menstrual leave. Victorian Women’s Trust, a non-profit that advocates for gender equity, introduced one of the first such policies in 2017. Its policy, which is open source, provides for flexibility to work from home, or have access to modifications at the workplace that ensure employee comfort, such as resting in a quiet area, and 12 days of paid leave per calendar year.
“I've been an advocate of gender equality for a long time, but up until this work I never saw menstruation and the menstrual taboo as part of the gender equality jigsaw. Now I do,” says executive director Mary Crooks.
Similarly, pension fund Future Super offers women six days of paid leave per year as well as flexible working arrangements to manage symptoms. Surveys by the company show engagement levels among its women staff rose from 38% to 71% after the policy came into force.
Globally, menstrual leave has been around for some time—but it is not too common, appearing in the employment law ledgers of just a handful of countries.
Overcoming stigma and taboo
Stigma and taboo around menstruation remain significant barriers to the uptake of menstrual leave in many countries. In Japan, uptake of menstrual leave has plunged from 26% in 1965 to just 0.9% in 2017, according to a government survey. Likewise, in South Korea, uptake has dropped from 23.6% in 2013 to 19.7% in 2017.
In Indonesia there are concerns that the menstrual leave policy is not implemented consistently and that the provision is discretionary. Many employers offer only one day a month, while others offer no menstrual leave at all, either because they are unaware of the law or choose to disregard it.
In Zambia, there is a dearth of data on how Mother’s Day is being implemented in both formal and informal sectors, and there appears to be no interest to undertake research either, says journalist and activist Ruth Kamwi, who undertook a small study on the uptake of Mother’s Day.
“Zambia should be proud that it is only one of six countries in the world with this policy, and the only one in Africa, but it’s like, once the policy was embedded in legislation, a box was ticked and everyone just happily moved on,” she says.
Further, she says, Mother’s Day fails to address prevailing social norms and stigma relating to menstruation that women often experience in the workplace. Many women feel shame when discussing their periods and don’t feel empowered to take menstrual leave.
Some private organisations compound the situation by asking female employees to mark in advance their menstrual leave days, “so if they do not know how to count their cycle, or are irregular, they miss out and have to take ordinary leave or sick leave if they feel unwell during their menses,” Kamwi says.
Her research also found there are many women who do not take Mother’s Day due to a fear of missing out in the workplace. “In some organisations, supervisors wait for the day a woman staffer is out to offer up opportunities or have an important meeting.”
Abraham Jones, CEO of AJ Recruitment Agency, says the vague wording in Zambia’s legislation can make it difficult for employers to implement menstrual leave. “The clause is basically one short paragraph in the Employment Code stating that women can take this day off. There is no criterion on who is eligible—does it cover menopausal women or women without children?”
He says the day has been “abused” by some women who use it as a holiday by timing it to have a longer weekend. He adds that many of his clients do not want to employ young women because they are reluctant to deal with menstruation, pregnancy and maternity leave. He wants the law to be more clear-cut to prevent its misuse.
Towards a more equitable and inclusive policy
Danielle Keiser, a Berlin-based social impact entrepreneur focused on menstrual health and founder of Madami, an agency specialising in women’s wellbeing, says a successful menstrual leave policy that promotes gender equality in the workplace and fights stigma and taboo must encompass more than just time off each month.
"Menstrual-friendly workplaces should be established to help with gender equity, but menstrual leave should be couched under sick leave so that, when you're feeling bad or unwell, you are sick."
Flexible working arrangements, like those available in Australian organisations, education, and access to affordable and safe period products are crucial elements of an effective “menstrual policy” that fundamentally changes behavioural expectations of women in the workplace, she says.
“Is it just days off work or a comprehensive policy that speaks to the myriad different ways in which workplaces could be made more inclusive for women who menstruate?” Keiser says. “If it's just the former, days off are not enough because different women experience their menstruation differently... recognising that it is a matter of educating everyone on the team on what the menstrual cycle is. It’s not just a period.
“Menstrual-friendly workplaces should be established to help with gender equity, but menstrual leave should be couched under sick leave so that, when you're feeling bad or unwell, you are sick.”
In Zambia’s case, Keiser says, a first step to a more inclusive policy could be swapping Mother’s Day —which she terms a “terrible name”—for something less misleading.
“Periods are a vital sign of reproductive health and may not have anything to do with motherhood at all. Not all women want to, or will become mothers,” she says. “The idea clearly needs more consideration if it’s going to be truly beneficial.”
Kamwi agrees that workplaces should demystify menstruation and dispel the myth that it causes women to be fragile, unreliable, and expensive to employ.
“What is critically important is having open conversations about menstruation at management level, which will trickle down to effective enforcement of menstrual polices at lower levels,” she says.