While the role of the employer in supporting employees experiencing the menopause has become a key area of discussion, the issue of painful periods remains taboo in the workplace, and is yet to receive the same level attention or consideration.
Menstrual symptoms can impact women severely as they attempt to perform and excel in the workplace. In practice, employees may simply grin and bear the pain and discomfort, or when their symptoms are severe, they may call in sick and take the time as sick leave. But this becomes an issue if the employee experiences painful period symptoms with every cycle, potentially triggering the organisation’s sickness absence intervention procedure.
In light of this issue, many employers are now considering introducing menstruation leave and a so-called ‘period policy’ so as to nurture a more empathetic and inclusive workplace culture.
Common menstruation symptoms
Period symptoms will differ from one person to the next and some may experience more pain and discomfort than others. Common symptoms include:
- stomach cramps
- aches in hips, back, and thighs
- headaches and migraines
While not everyone experiences debilitating periods, if your employee’s symptoms are severe, it may seriously affect their performance at work or leave them unable to work at all.
Knowing how to support those who do suffer will help you improve staff wellbeing and reduce absences in your workplace.
Can employees take time off work for painful periods?
Painful periods are not dealt with specifically by law in the UK, and there is no right to menstrual leave in the UK. This means employers are not required by statute to allow workers to take time off when they are suffering painful menstrual symptoms. It remains at the employer’s discretion to offer this kind of leave, either on a paid or unpaid basis.
However, employees facing extreme menstrual pain or other related issues and as a result are unfit for work, they should take sick leave. You cannot refuse sick leave if your employee asks for it.
Is time off for period pains covered by Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)?
Unfortunately, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not provided for the initial 3 days of absence. This means that most people who need to take time off because of their periods, likely would not be absent for more than 3 days. Therefore, if their employer does not provide contractual sick pay, the employee will not receive any income during their off time. If sick leave is required regularly, this could result in substantial financial loss.
Workers who regularly take time off for painful periods
If a worker is rgularly taking time off due to their menstrual cycle, this can be disruptive for the organisation and place additional pressure on other team members.
It is also possible that staff taking time off due to menstrual health issues could exceed sickness attendance thresholds. An indirect gender discrimination lawsuit could result if the employer is aware of the employee’s reason for absence. It is common also for employees to feel hesitant to discuss their periods with their supervisors. This may be associated with their fertility and/or menopause and could affect other categories of workers who menstruate but do not consider themselves women. Additionally, some could be concerned that asking for time off for menstrual health purposes might make them seem vulnerable or incapable.
Taking a supportive approach can help to acknowledges their circumstances and identify how the organisation can help. This could include flexible working arrangement or excluding period-related absence form their sickness absence record to avoid triggering disciplinary action.
Failure to offer support can result in grievances and potentially tribunal claims for discrimination
Should you introduce menstruation leave?
Menstrual leave, allows employees who experience periods to take time off work during that time in their cycle. It is often given in addition to standard sick leave. Generally, it is understood that employees will only utilise the policy when their period hinders their ability to work—like when they’re in pain from cramps, for instance.
Employers are advised to introduce a period policy for their organisation to help managers provide appropriate support and to help destigmatise periods in the workplace. If you decide to introduce menstrual leave, this should be detailed in the period policy.
While the Spanish Government legislated easier this year to allow menstrual leave, in the UK, there appear to be no plans to introduce any kind of period-related employment right for workers.
Allowing employees to take sick leave because of period pain can help them seek the help they need, increase productivity, and boost morale. Plus, companies with menstrual leave are often seen as more supportive employers, leading to increased retention.
One of the main arguments against implementing a menstrual leave policy is that a generous reasonable sick leave policy should cover the days that women need off for both sickness and their periods.
Other arguments against letting employees take sick leave for menstrual issues usually include that it’s not equitable for men or that it could be abused.
The questions of whether to introduce menstrual leave remains therefore for each employer to consider and determine in light of their own cultural and workforce objectives.
Last updated: 1 May 2023