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Employer’s paid period leave policy in Australia stirs world debate

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Story highlights

A women's advocacy group in Australia offers paid leave for period pain to its employees

Some countries that offer period leave are Indonesia, Japan and South Korea

Period leave remains controversial: "The thing is, women experience their periods very differently," one expert says

CNN —  

At the Victorian Women’s Trust offices in bustling Melbourne, Australia, the small staff of about 15 employees – all women except for one – talk openly about everything, even their menstrual cycles.

The women’s advocacy organization in Australia has been offering paid days off for painful periods, called “period leave” or “menstrual leave,” to its employees for the past 18 months.

These days do not count as “sick leave,” but they are specifically provided for those monthly occasions when a woman might request to stay home due to having uncomfortable symptoms related to her menstrual cycle.

Now, the organization is encouraging other employers to introduce similar menstrual policies, and it even provides a “menstrual policy template” for employers to download online to integrate into their own organizations.

“The interesting thing, over 18 months, I think the number of days of leave that my staff has claimed is probably about seven or eight across the whole office,” said Mary Crooks, executive director of the Victorian Women’s Trust.

The menstrual leave policy was introduced after the organization launched a large research project called The Waratah Project, exploring how women collectively think about menstruation and menopause, Crooks said.

That research, which involved an online survey of more than 3,000 women and 22 in-person discussion groups, could be released within the next six months, Crooks said.

“In that context of doing that work, we realized as a women’s organization, that we had no menstrual policy,” she said. “So the development of the menstrual policy was just an automatic response of, if we want to shift attitudes and behaviors, we have to start right here in our own office.”

The policy that was adopted, she said, provides women the option of working from home when they experience discomfort during their periods, or they may access up to 12 days of paid leave a year.

“If you are experiencing discomfort with a period but you are at work and you want to stay at work, then you can certainly feel free to move to somewhere in the office – maybe stretch out on a couch – but keep your laptop and keep doing your work,” Crooks said.

Yet period leave policies come with controversy.

Some groups, such as the Victorian Women’s Trust, argue that providing women paid days off for painful periods can be beneficial to women’s health care. But some other people view such policies as a hindrance that might exclude women from the workplace.

“The conversation usually goes in one of two directions. On one side, often a journalist or a colleague will say something like, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s very feminist to medicalize women’s bodies,’ assuming that symptoms around the onset of menses are somehow completely culturally constructed,” said Tory Eisenlohr-Moul, a clinical psychologist, assistant professor of psychiatry and associate director of translational research in the Women’s Mental Health Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

On the other side, everyday women who have severe menstrual cycle changes in their physical or emotional symptoms might argue that there is a need for leave and that there should be more awareness around severe cyclical symptoms, said Eisenlohr-Moul, who is also a member of the clinical advisory board for the International Association for Premenstrual Disorders.

“Sometimes, I feel like the synthesis of those two positions gets lost,” she said.

“Most women do not suffer from important changes in emotional and physical health across the cycle, but there is a minority that do and deserve diagnosis, treatment and potentially accommodations at work,” she said. “So it’s a matter of acknowledging individual differences.”

The places where period leave exists

Victorian Women’s Trust isn’t the first organization to introduce a workplace policy allowing allocated paid leave for women’s menstrual cycles.

Across several Asian countries, menstrual leave is offered to working women, said Danielle Keiser, founder of a global women’s health organization called the Menstrual Health Hub.

Records from the MH Hub indicate that there are menstrual leave policies in Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

Since 1947, women in Japan have been granted menstrual leave.

In South Korea, female workers have been entitled to a day off each month since 2001, but few employees in male-dominated workplaces are eager to exercise that right, according to the Korea Times.

In 2014, Taiwan moved to grant women menstrual leave. In 2016, China’s Anhui province introduced a new rule allowing women who suffer severe menstrual pain to take one to two days off every month, after presenting a doctor’s note.

In others parts of the world, menstrual leave policies have emerged more on a company-by-company basis.

For instance, Coexist, a group based in the United Kingdom that hosts community spaces, introduced a period policy last year. The policy allows employees who opt into it to take time off, work from home or consider other options, such as altering their working hours during their periods.

The Victorian Women’s Trust in Australia hopes to make a “call to action” in its forthcoming research paper for the country to adopt some type of nationwide menstrual leave policy – “and to find ways for companies to be incentivized to do that, to be encouraged to do it,” Crooks said.

’They weren’t reporting their periods because they wanted to fly’

“On the face of it, the option of ‘menstrual leave’ seems like a great idea. No one who faces cramps and pain should be expected to work and should be able to take the day off,” said Inga Winkler, a lecturer in human rights and director of the Working Group on Menstrual Health and Gender Justice at Columbia University in New York.