Reports have identified a plan in Spain to introduce between 3 to 5 (in serious cases) days of medical leave for females (and those assigned female at birth) when they suffer from painful periods and measures including a requirement for schools to provide sanitary products. VAT would be removed from sanitary products, and they would be provided free to women in marginalised circumstances. This is proposed alongside wider reproductive health reforms and it is understood that it will be put before the Spanish cabinet in late May 2022.

Should Spain go ahead with this, it will be among only a handful of countries (including, Indonesia, South Korea, Zambia) worldwide and the first in Europe to legislate for this. Is there anything similar here in Ireland, and are we likely to follow suit?

Why menstrual leave? 

Since only females, and those assigned female at birth, can menstruate, placing an employee at a disadvantage due to a women’s health issue could amount to sex discrimination or harassment. This has previously been seen in a UK case Rooney v Leicestershire City Council (2021) whereby a female employee was treated negatively due to going through menopause. The same considerations would apply to those who suffer with severe period pain, and who need time off work to manage this.

Is leave necessary?

In some cases, it will be, as menstrual pain can be temporarily debilitating for some. However, Emma Cox, CEO of charity Endometriosis UK is wary of this approach, highlighting that a generic ‘menstrual leave’ policy can downplay severe and chronic conditions such as endometriosis, which whilst connected to menstruation, is a unique and specific condition that can have serious effects for those struggling with it.

In contrast, a recent survey by Fórsa found that more than 70% of women have taken time off work because of their periods, while four in 10 felt unable to tell their manager the reason for their absence, according to new research.

Is this likely to be introduced?

Specific leave for menstrual pain is unlikely to be seen anytime soon. However, a recent survey carried out by Fórsa, the public service union, found that an enormous majority — 96% — were in favour of a menstrual-friendly policy in the workplaceFinding such as these could eventually lead to some form of leave entitlement specifically for female health problems, or at the very least more awareness within the working population of the issues that females face in the workplace and the development of more understanding policies and practices.

What can employers do now?

Employers can draft menstrual health policies or introduce a contractual entitlement to menstrual leave could help affected employees. However, it may be more beneficial for organisations to instead implement measures to support them to continue working. For example, offering hybrid working arrangements and flexi-hours may allow employees to remain comfortable without losing out on pay or work projects. Similarly, providing free period products in the workplace and creating a culture of open communication will enable employees to reach out to their employer if they are struggling, and agree tailored adjustments which will directly alleviate the pain and discomfort they experience. Many employees will not want to take time off work, so creating an environment where health discussions are welcomed, and adjustments expected, can be a win-win solution for all.