People who menstruate are often familiar with the tiptoed act they put on in the workplace. Going to the bathroom ‘discreetly’ armed with their sanitary product woe betide a colleague spots them holding it; the mild pang of ‘fear’ every time they sneeze or stand up; an inconspicuous glance at their chair to see if they’ve left a stain; and the agony of cramps in the middle of a meeting.
To create a more equitable workplace, some companies have introduced period leave where those who menstruate are eligible to take a day off each month to recover without it being taken out of their sick days. This, in essence, doesn’t just allow staff time to recuperate if they need to, but it also puts the subject of periods on the table—a topic that has long been stigmatised in this part of the world. So much so that slang terms such as ‘time of the month’, ‘surfing the crimson wave’ or ‘having the painters in’ have become accepted jargon in the workplace to refer to periods.
M&C Saatchi Australia is a rare agency in this region to introduce period leave for staff who menstruate. When general manager Nathalie Brady and her team asked staff about benefits that they wished for, the creative department sparked the idea of period leave. And when it was finally implemented and announced, Brady said “you could just hear the cheers around the office from women”.
She told Campaign Asia-Pacific that implementing period leave was a gesture to empathise with staff and let them know that it can be difficult during those days, and that there’s no shame in asking for time off.
“Some women suffer from horrendous conditions like endometriosis and fibroids that really impact them on a monthly basis,” said Brady. “You know that feeling when you're having a heavy period, and you're in the middle of a meeting—everyone's had those awful moments. Let's not underestimate the amount of stress and anxiety that comes with. If you're not a woman, or if you don't experience that, you don't understand what that's like.”
‘Why not just take it out of your sick day?’
Period leave has been a contentious issue in the region with many arguing that it should be classified as a sick day. But lumping period-related time off under sick days comes with issues: Firstly, if a company requires a doctor’s note to justify a sick day, this means that staff will be forced to consult a doctor whenever they need time off to recover from cramps or heavy bleeding.
Brady argued that separating period leave from sick days is also a symbol of equitability. “Research proves that there are certainly challenges that are systemic among women from a health perspective. And these problems don't exist in the male physiology, like a period cycle every month, for example,” she said.
“And so, it feels equitable for women to have a slight benefit in leave for the [health] challenges that they have to go through. And on the flip side, we look to be equally as equitable for men when it comes to having children. We have equal pay parental leave for both mothers and fathers.”
At Indian digital marketing company Culture Machine, providing period leave outside of sick days meant destigmatising periods as a ‘sickness’ or something ‘dirty’. “This is something that happens to women naturally, it’s how your body functions,” said Reema D’souza, assistant HR manager at Culture Machine. “We wanted people to be upfront and open about it.”
HR staff at Culture Machine decided to implement period leave because they had noticed that some staff who menstruate would take a sick day each month while being vague about their symptoms, and the company realised that this ‘trend’ was due to a fear of telling managers about period pain. “The idea of period leave for us was to make it comfortable for women to take the leap without feeling ashamed to walk up to their male or female managers,” said D’souza.
In India, the stigma around menstruation runs deep, supplemented by religious and cultural practices. When on their period, women are often considered ‘impure’ and are excluded from social and religious events. They are also denied entry into some places of worship, and in more conservative communities, disallowed to step into their kitchens. On top of that, access to sanitary products remains a major issue. So something as seemingly inconsequential as period leave is a big step forward to removing some of those barriers, and might just aid in raising awareness around systemic inequity that have led many Indian women to suffer in silence.
But it’s not always the case where period leave is accepted with open arms. Last year, Indian delivery platform Zomato introduced period leave for all menstruating staff, and a memo to staff penned by founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal was made public. The memo included a note to men: “Our female colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave shouldn’t be uncomfortable for us. This is a part of life, and while we don’t fully understand what women go through, we need to trust them when they say they need to rest.”
Zomato’s decision sparked a divisive nationwide debate on social media with many—both men and women—calling the move as ‘unequal’ and ‘backward’. Some argued that period leave may “push women out of decision-making roles at offices”. One reporter on Twitter said “Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism.”
Feminist activists in India, on the other hand, argued that women claiming that periods are “not a big deal” risked invalidating the stress and pain many who menstruate do endure. One woman said on Twitter: “Period experiences are different for different women and no one person can speak for all. Those who suffer from extreme forms of it, and have for years, we didn't choose this. The burden of not being discriminated against should not be on us.”
M&C Saatchi Australia too was—to some extent—berated after publicising their policy. The comments beneath this story indicate that many still think of period leave as the “opposite of empowerment” or “belittling to women” and a “personal matter that should be kept internally”.
The evident impact of period leave
For Emperikal, a digital marketing agency based in Kuala Lumpur, period leave has greatly improved staff morale in the company. Saiful Amir Omar, principal consultant and founder of the agency, said that because periods usually happen once a month, the company decided to “acknowledge the science” and ease the process for menstruating staff. And this showed to have an effect on staff productivity.
“Goodwill is reciprocal,” said Omar. “We have understanding that everyone who feels heard and understood are more likely to perform over the expected goals when they are in good condition.”
Because menstrual cycles are something that can be estimated, the teams at Emperikal said that they know when and how to manage this, and are able to delegate effectively during peak business periods. Internal HR data from the agency obtained by Campaign Asia-Pacific showed that since period leave was implemented, the number of short notice leave and sick days taken by female staff reduced significantly from 9 days to 1.1 days across three years.
Menstruating staff at the agency also provided accounts of how period leave has impacted them. One associate art director said: “It’s definitely great to get a day off when your menses are killing you. I feel like all companies should have it because no women can focus and deal with menstrual pain at the same time.”
One copywriter said: “It helps people with more serious symptoms feel less bad about their bodies at the workplace so that's a pretty neat thing. It's also a good inclusivity practice. Knowing menstrual leave is on the table means that the company values menstruators and is more likely a welcoming place for people who menstruate like women and other marginalised genders, which is kind of cool.”
And one senior account manager added: “A lot of employers think that employees are trying to cheat them to get more 'holidays'. Companies need to understand that it is a natural cycle, and that all women go through this together but in their own unique ways. Personally, I have my moments with cramps so I don't take the leave consistently, but I think it is great to have because I have a lot of friends who suffer terrible cramps.”
Interestingly, because Emperikal has been public about its period leave policy, it has also aided in getting more women to apply for roles at the agency. HR data showed that the ratio of females to males in job applications increased from 10:90 to 60:40 within three years of the agency implementing period leave.
“It helps to remove ‘selection bias’ among candidates because menstruation is something that the company acknowledges to be part of the norm rather than a disadvantage when hiring female employees compared to male candidates,” said Michelle Ding, director of creative content at Emperikal.” And we have seen that having this as part of a company benefit really allows us to reach out to a wider female creative talent pool.”