Should You Get The Day Off Work If You Have Severe Period Pain?

Menstruation may be a natural and normal function of the female body, but it can also be a physical and psychological nightmare.

For lots of women, a couple of Panadol, a hot water bottle and some rest is enough to get them through their cycles. At the other end of the scale, others have to be hospitalised, have surgery and take the sort of medication that is military-strength just to live their lives.

In between those two, though, are a lot of women who fall in the middle -- and now scientists have proven that periods cramp more than just style.

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Researchers from Radboud University Medical Center in The Netherlands have unveiled proof that periods force the average woman to lose nine days of productivity from work or school a year -- almost one day a month.

The study reveals women and girls are sitting at their desks, but unable to focus or do their work because of their symptoms. On top of that, one in seven women need to take time off from work or school to deal with their symptoms.

So, why aren’t we accommodating this?

In a small but growing number of countries, women have a legislated right to time off to deal with their period symptoms. Indonesia allows up to two days per month, Taiwan allows up to three days per month, Zambia allows one day per month, and South Korea and Japan make provisions, too.

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Until Australia gets on board, women will continue to be forced to either suffer in silence or use their sick leave to take time off. Sick leave is not an appropriate use for menstruation-related problems because these women aren’t technically sick -- getting your period is not the same as having a virus or hurting your back; forcing women to use sick leave for periods places yet another preventable disadvantage to women (along with the gender pay gap, superannuation gap and wide-ranging sexism and discrimination).

A comical reaction against the idea of ‘period leave’ is that women will take time off, even if they don’t need it or will be considered less committed to their jobs. Some even claim that it blows a strike against gender equality because men (with the exception of some trans men) can’t access the same leave.

All of these arguments not only ignore the biological reality of menstruation, but are part of the long history of menstruation being used as a weapon against women as a bogus claim that they aren’t as capable as men to lead, that they’re emotional or weak.

Women have been taught, over many centuries, that their periods are ‘dirty’ and that it makes them ‘impure’. In some cultures, even today, women are forced to live in makeshift huts while they menstruate. In Nepal last year, a 21-year-old died while she was forced to live in an unheated and insulated shed in near-zero temperatures.

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It’s not a surprise, then, that when women do take time off to deal with their period pain and other symptoms, that only 27 percent tell their bosses the real reason for their absence. In 2019, women still feel shame for not just having a period, but to suffer from its symptoms, too.

More than 32,000 women took part in The Netherlands researchers' study, which concluded that society has “underestimated" and "poorly appreciated” the impact that periods can have on women.

“Menstruation-related symptoms cause a great deal of lost productivity, and presenteeism is a bigger contributor to this than absenteeism,” the researchers stated. “It seems likely that the real impact of [periods] is underestimated in the general population.”

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The list of symptoms women can experience from their periods reads like a worst-ever menu list of options; apart from the well-known abdominal pain, headaches and bloating, there can also be back pain, insomnia, acne, joint pain, tender or painful breasts, fatigue, diarrhoea or constipation.

A handful of Australian companies provide ‘period leave’, including Victorian Women’s Trust, which reported last year that in the first 18 months of its leave program, an average of just seven days of leave has been taken by its women-majority workforce.

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It demonstrates that ‘period leave’ would not be a drain on company resources, nor would it be taken advantage of. There are many women whose symptoms are so severe that they require time off.

Providing such a policy not only provides essential relief for those who need it, but it makes an important statement that we -- as a society, as workplaces -- understand that just because periods are normal, doesn’t mean they’re easy.