It was big news last year when Coexist, a Bristol-based social enterprise, announced that it was exploring the idea of introducing a menstrual leave policy, enabling women to take time off when experiencing period pain.
By some, the idea was heralded as a much needed change, while others claimed it was unnecessary and that companies should simply provide a fair sick-leave policy that allows all employees to take the time off that they need when they are not well – whether menstruating or not. We caught up with Chloe Foy, people development manager at Coexist, to find out how far they’ve got with their period leave policy and what their staff thinks of the changes.
“Really it comes down to having a greater awareness in the first instance and not ignoring the fact that most women have menstrual cycles and that some women do experience quite a lot of pain,” she says.
The idea for the policy came after Coexist hosted an event with Alexandra Pope, a specialist in the field. “She explained that the more awareness that you have in terms of looking after yourself when you’re on a menstrual cycle and experiencing pain, the better,” Foy says. “The more that you suppress it and try to strive on through, it can make it worse.
“We had a couple of members of staff who were in quite a lot of pain at work and felt that they couldn’t talk about it because it is a taboo subject. But since we’ve created more of awareness so far at Coexist there seems to be a lot less pain with those staff.”
While scientific evidence for this phenomenon is lacking, Foy says that, anecdotally, it seems to work – and is backed up by case studies from Pope.
But, the idea of a menstrual leave policy is about more than allowing time off work for women with painful periods, Foy says. “Alexandra Pope explained a lot about the power of natural cycles – predominantly our menstrual cycle – and how they are a sign that we need to pay more attention to, to find out what our body is trying to portray to us. There are different parts of the cycle that give us strength in different ways and you can use the menstrual cycle to actual utilise it in different ways. For example, at certain times of the month you have more confidence and if you have that awareness that you’re in that week you can utilise it.”
She adds: “It’s not just about absenteeism; it’s really about presenteeism and understanding how to use it in that way.”
Foy says that Coexist started a lot more conversations around the idea that natural cycles can be utilised to increase productivity. “For example, we’ll say when we’re willing to have certain discussions based on where we are in our cycle,” she explains. “Some of the women are more into it than others, but it’s certainly raised the awareness of it so that we can talk about it more openly. It’s not for everybody but it seems to be catching on.”
Period leave isn’t intended to be an excuse to give women extra time off. Foy says that it’s leading them to look at the flexibility of their workplace and what that could look like. “It enables us to say, ‘I’m on this day of the month, I’m just about to come on, or I’m on day one, actually it’s better if I go home for the day,’” she says.
But what about the men in the office? How have they reacted to the idea?
“All I can say on behalf of them is that it speaks to our other values as a company in terms of valuing flexibility at work,” Foy says. “They would be allowed other similar times off if they weren’t feeling well either. There’s not a huge shift in that sense. It just comes down to more about a greater awareness of it and we feel that we don’t have a trust issue with employees.”
She adds that a workplace, which is open to talking about menstrual cycles could actually be beneficial to male staff too. “The more awareness there is around it, the more you understand it, the less likely you are to actually be affected by the pain so there will be less time taken off.”
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