Why you should care

No boss wants to talk about this. Which is precisely why they should.

Intense pain, constant bleeding and diarrhea might sound like symptoms of the latest dread disease. But for billions of people, they recur, together — every month — simply because their bodies contain ovaries. For many women, that “time of the month” is a piñata of physical discomfort, and often suffering. Some need to take a sick day. Others power through by popping Midol like it were candy.

But why can’t they take paid period leave? The option isn’t usually available, but Dr. Gedis Grudzinskas, a gynecology consultant in London, argues menstrual leave should be universal. “If men had periods, things would be different,” he says.

At first glance, the idea might seem far-fetched, but it’s not new. Japan was the first country to incorporate menstrual leave into its labor standards, in 1947: It’s called seirikyuuka, or “physiological leave.” Indonesia soon followed; its Labor Act of 1948 allows women with painful periods to take two days of leave per month. In 2013, Taiwan passed the Act of Gender Equality in Employment, which allots women three days a year for menstruation leave. Maybe not enough, but better than par for the course, which is none.

Employees who work when they’re sick cost American companies about $160 billion in lost productivity every year.

To be sure, it’s not an easy concept to implement. Only a minority of women suffer from severe discomfort or pain, so administering leave fairly would be a challenge. Male co-workers would be unlikely to pick up their bleeding comrades’ slack without huffing and puffing. And plenty of women wouldn’t want their co-workers — let alone their bosses — to know when Aunt Flo is in town. That seems to be the case in South Korea, where reports suggest many women don’t take their one day of monthly period leave for fear of judgment, or because they have too much work. “It would count as yet another reason why companies choose not to employ women,” warns Rosie Boycott, a British journalist and feminist.

And then there are arguments about productivity — the idea being that once women have period leave, they will slack off. That’s debatable. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found employees who work when they’re sick cost American companies about $160 billion in lost productivity every year. That’s higher than the cost of absenteeism. What’s more, paid sick days increase employee loyalty, saving businesses money down the line in new hires.

Such arguments about productivity and personal lives could once have been leveled against maternity leave. But many societies have decided the costs are worth the benefits. And yes, it might feel a bit weird to bring up period pains with your boss, but it’s not like HR people aren’t all up in ladies’ business already. Companies like Apple and Facebook are offering to pay the cost of egg-freezing — and heralding it as an empowering move. When it comes to reproductive health in the workplace, it seems we are leaping ahead and forgetting the basics.

Can women battle through the pain and do their jobs with an aching body and a foggy mind? Of course. They do it all the time. But in the 21st century, they shouldn’t have to. It’s not special treatment; it’s basic labor rights. Period.

What do you think? Is menstrual leave terrifying or brilliant? Let us know in the comments below.

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