Australian unions, lawyers and researchers are advocating for menstrual and menopausal leave for people experiencing pain associated with menstruation or menopause. If these plans come to fruition, here’s how HR can prepare.
Menstruation and menopause are biological functions that will impact around half of all Australians at some point in their lives. So why should people use up their sick leave if symptoms prevent them from working?
In a 2019 study of 21,573 Australian women, researchers found that 90 per cent of respondents had experienced debilitating pain during menstruation. And yet, only 40 per cent took time off work or study when they were experiencing pain associated with their periods.
Similarly, a 2014 study of Australian women found that many peri-menopausal women experience menopausal-related symptoms including sleep disturbances (77 per cent), headaches (70 per cent) and weakness or fatigue (63 per cent). For people experiencing the post-menopausal stages, these symptoms were experienced more frequently.
“There’s an increasing argument that the existing benefits for personal leave under the Fair Work Act (FWA) are insufficient for those struggling to manage reproductive health concerns such as menstruation, or fertility, treatment or menopause,” says Sydney Colussi, a researcher at University of Sydney’s Business School who focuses on gender equality in the workplace and the sexual and reproductive rights of workers.
“We know that Australian women often conserve their personal leave so they can attend to their child care or aged care obligations. This means they use up their leave caring for other people, leaving them without enough leave or flexibility to care for themselves.”
What could menstrual or menopausal leave look like?
Unions and legal experts are campaigning to enshrine legislative entitlement for those experiencing debilitating symptoms associated with menstruation or menopause into the FWA.
In November, law firm Maurice Blackburn joined forces with some of Australia’s largest unions, including the Australian Workers’ Union, United Workers’ Union, Transport Workers’ Union, Rail, Tram and Bus Union and Australian Workers’ Manufacturing Union to campaign for menstrual leave to be made a legal requirement in Australian workplaces.
They are advocating for a baseline of 12 additional days per year (one extra day per month) of paid leave for those experiencing painful periods or menopausal symptoms.
If successful, the FWA entitlement could act as a baseline for employers to build on, similar to how some employers approach parental leave.
Menstrual and menopausal leave could make work more equitable. In one study of peri- and postmenopausal women in the UK, 40 per cent of respondents felt their performance at work was negatively impacted by their symptoms.
“There’s an indirect discrimination effect for women and gender diverse people who are more likely than cisgender men to require paid leave and flexible working arrangements to address these issues such as significant period pain, complications related to endometriosis or difficulties related to menopause,” says Colussi.
Colussi cautions employers not to view these policies as exclusively impacting cisgender women.
“It’s important that employers have an awareness of the needs of transgender, gender diverse and non-binary people and recognising that cisgender women, as well as many people across the sex and gender spectrums, may require support for these issues.”
Colussi points to a UK study that found a significant number of healthcare workers were considering either reducing their hours (36 per cent) or retiring early (19 per cent) because of difficulties related to menopause and inadequate support from their employer.
Instituting specific leave and other workplace adjustments, such as flexible hours, could help women stay in the workforce for longer, she says.
“Countries like Japan and Indonesia have had a form of menstrual leave in place at a legislative level since the 1940s,” – Sydney Colussi, researcher at the University of Sydney
On a global level, Colussi’s research found 17 countries that had menstrual and menopausal leave options in place, or are considering policies. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are some of the countries that have this leave formally legislated, while the Spanish cabinet has approved a menstrual leave law, which is yet to be passed in parliament.
“Countries like Japan and Indonesia have had a form of menstrual leave in place at a legislative level since the 1940s,” says Colussi.
However, employers need to ensure their cultures are prepared to support a policy change like this.
“In countries where menstrual and menopausal leave has been legislated, we’ve seen evidence of the leave becoming a source of employer discrimination,” says Colussi.
“There are examples of employers purposely withholding or refusing to grant menstrual leave or using menstrual leave as the grounds to discriminate against female workers because they are perceived as more expensive than male workers.
“Those are obviously different contexts in Australia, but that evidence is really important to keep in mind.”
What could this mean for HR?
If menstrual and menopausal leave is legislated, HR will need to review existing policies, amp up education and normalise conversations around menstruation and menopause in the workplace.
“I think a lot of the employers looking at these issues need to be aware of the fact that [menstruation and menopause is] a cultural issue, as much as a policy design issue,” says Colussi.
Ultimately, for these policies to be successful, we need to ensure there’s broader education and management awareness.
“It might not be enough to just implement a policy and expect the culture to change.”
A great case study we can look to is the QTU Menopause Project, carried out by the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU) at the end of 2020. The Union took a holistic approach to menopause at work, rather than simply implementing policy and leaving it at that.
“[QTU carried out] an extensive organisation-wide initiative. It did a survey of staff awareness and attitudes toward menopause, and an extensive review of all of its internal policies to see if it could do anything more to support workers experiencing menopause.”
“It also [conducted] education awareness, as well as opt-in training for managers about menopause, as well as amending their its flexible work policies.”
Another thing HR will need to note is the sensitivity around discussing these biological functions.
“After all, [menstruation or menopause] is a highly personal issue and some people may have heightened concerns about privacy. For example, people with diverse genders like transgender and non-binary people may not wish to disclose or discuss their gender identity work,” says Colussi.
It could be a similar situation for those from certain cultural backgrounds, who may not feel it’s appropriate to discuss menstruation in a public setting.
“The focus should be to design the policy in a way that keeps those cultural issues in mind, while also being aware of the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable drawing attention to the topic in the workplace.
“These policies are highly controversial and there’s a competing argument that drawing attention to issues such as menstruation or menopause in the workplace could arguably be a detriment to women. Employers could perceive women as more expensive than men, or it could reinforce a stereotype that women are inherently less capable of paid work because they have these innate biological features,” she says.
“These are things policymakers need to be aware of. This is a highly sensitive area that needs to be approached cautiously.”
“I think a lot of the employers looking at these issues need to be aware of the fact that [menstruation and menopause is] a cultural issue, as much as a policy design issue.” – Sydney Colussi, researcher at the University of Sydney.
Learnings you can apply today
Whatever the outcome of legislating menstrual and menopausal leave, employers have an important duty to support employees with challenges surrounding menstruation, fertility, gender transitions or menopause. Some implementations could include:
- Flexibility in working location and hours: Giving employees the option to work from home if they are experiencing debilitating symptoms related to menstruation and menopause.
- Conduct an internal review of existing workplace support: For example, review your physical workplace and find ways to make alterations to make employees more comfortable. For example, you could make desk fans available, or review the proximity of bathrooms to where employees sit.
- Training and education: Organise training for managers and supervisors on what these biological functions mean, and offer advice on how to support employees experiencing symptoms.
Work is no longer a place where employees clock in and out. HR professionals must be cognisant of what’s going on behind the scenes in an employee’s life; whether it’s mental health support or family planning – and design policies and support systems to ease any pressures they might be facing.
Looking to update your existing policies to account for menstrual and menopausal leave? AHRI can help to make sure you’ve got the basics covered via this short course.