Getting Menstrual Leave Policies, right!

Corporate lunchrooms have recently been engulfed by debates on period pain. This unlikely discussion was ignited earlier this year by Spain's planned decision to legislate paid menstrual leave. However, such legislation isn't new; the 1922 Soviet Union labour law protected the menstrual health of women workers, while in Vietnam, menstruating women have received an extra 30-minute paid break, three days a month, since 2020. Other countries with similar legislation around paid menstrual leave include Japan in 1947, Indonesia, Taiwan, Zambia, and South Korea. The debate around Spain's decision — the first for a capitalist European country — centres around the financial, ethical, and social implications. Contemporary capitalism with an expanding gig economy considers additional paid leave for public holidays, and sick and maternity leaves as bad for business. This predisposition may raise or exacerbate job recruitment biases and widen the gender pay gap. While some countries, like Australia and the UK, further discourse on how to incorporate gender-neutral language to improve inclusivity in acknowledging not only women menstruating.

Despite these issues, it's refreshing to see women's health is considered. However, unless developed carefully, bureaucracies, malpractices, and inadequate policies may limit its universal coverage and complicate the value of menstrual leave — self-care. Debilitating menstrual pain or dysmenorrhea impacts the quality of life, and a paid menstrual leave offers a right to self-care practices that can improve sufferers' physical and psychosocial health. Unfortunately, lessons from Vietnam show possible exploitation of a menstrual leave policy, with some employers offering a financial bonus to women who do not take leave. In other countries with leave entitlements, many women either know about or take advantage of the policy. Not surprisingly, self-care practices are lesser priorities in favour of working incentives, with potential long-term health consequences. One such pathway is using anti-inflammatory analgesics to alleviate the pain. Until recently, this approach was the most frequented, but a newly published study by Professor Mogil and colleagues found that short-term use of anti-inflammatory analgesics for acute pain advances the onset of chronic pain. Interestingly, this finding had a secondary implication for women's overall quality of life.

Previous studies had demonstrated that more women experience mental ill-health, with chronic pain being a major causative factor. The findings from Mogil and co. indicate the use of anti-inflammatory analgesics during acute pain such as menstruation may contribute to the onset of chronic pain and consequent mental ill-health amongst many women. When anti-inflammatory painkillers have a mere 31% efficacy for menstrual pain, this realisation not only puts big pharma on notice, as an understanding of women's health develops, but it also espouses the need and value of alternative approaches to care during the menstrual period. Yes, some women require pharmacological interventions for pain, but a menstrual leave offers time out for self-care practices as a mainstay or complementary approach. However, high-quality information on self-care practices is lacking, especially amongst young women. Implementing a menstrual leave policy by the Government and employers is inadequate if awareness and support for self-care practices are limited.

For starters, taking a leave from work relieves body stressors — like cortisol — that worsen the perception of pain. Self-care practices such as exercise, nutrition, heat application, mindfulness, quality sleep, and self-love are all interconnected towards boosting the body's natural pain relievers — endorphins and other happy neurochemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. As with most things with the body, consistency or routine is required for effect to be achieved, sustained and consolidated. All alternative policies during menstrual leave should favour leave-from-work strategies to prevent abuse when employers create a work-friendly environment in place of menstrual leave. Other risk factors to the policy, such as biases or stigma that are hurtful to women based on their menstrual period or pressure due to increasing precarity from the ever-changing societal landscapes, should be protected by work-health safety laws or ombudsman. Getting the menstrual leave policies right is of significant long-term benefits for women to experience a better quality of life, increased work productivity and stay longer in the workforce. It may be that mandatory use of a period cramp simulator would raise awareness and empathy in the non-menstruating populace; if nothing else, it'd give women a few laughs.

Written by Uchenna Ezedinma (Doctoral Candidate, School of Health and Behavioural Science) and Amanda Fiedler (Doctoral Candidate, School of Business and Creative Industries) of the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia

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