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Do you need to introduce a period policy?

The BBC recently reported that Spain intended to introduce legislation to give women suffering from severe period pain three days’ medical leave each month, paid for by the government.
This could be extended to five days in appropriate cases.

In response, several UK charities have called on the government to introduce similar legislation. Although the government is planning to develop a Women’s Health Strategy for England (it recently launched a survey that is looking at menstrual health alongside other female health issues), it’s 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, 72.2 per cent of women aged 16 to 64 are in work – that’s around 15.5 million women. Many businesses are waking up to the fact that women need particular support during the peri-menopause and menopause but haven’t really considered whether they need to implement similar policies to support those women who suffer from debilitating periods.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many women have traditionally pushed on through the pain, even though it impacts on their ability to focus and work productively. Some are too embarrassed to mention it to their line managers, others don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or inferior to men, and there’s also the issue of phoning in sick every month (and triggering absence reviews and warnings).
But things are starting to change. The younger generation are less embarrassed by people knowing they are having a period.
There’re also signs of societal change. Earlier this year, the government published the results of its ’Women’s health – Let’s talk
about it’ survey, which examined women’s experiences of dealing with five key health issues, one of which was menstrual health. In the survey around one in three respondents said women feel comfortable talking about health issues in their workplace (35 per cent), and half said their current or previous workplace had been supportive with regards to health issues (53 per cent). They called on the government and employers to “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”.

Is menstrual pain a disability?

It could be. 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 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 under the disability framework
in the Equality Act – reflecting the increase in awareness of this issue.
It’s possible 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?

Start to 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.

1. 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.

2. 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 medication to soothe 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 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.

3. 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 period policy?

It might be helpful to develop a policy so 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’.