Should employees be allowed to take sick leave for period pains?
According to a recent UK-wide survey, 26% of employees feared their manager wouldn’t consider period pain a legitimate illness, and therefore not a good enough reason to be absent from work. As such, up to a quarter of those surveyed admitted to lying to their manager about their true reason for absence.
How should employers approach period pain when cited by an employee as a reason for absence? Are the symptoms a good enough reason for employees to be absent from work? And should an employer’s obligations extend to allowing ‘period leave’?
Absence procedures and stigma
Employers should have an absence policy in their employee handbook and a procedure in place for reporting absence. Following that policy, they can seek an explanation for an employee’s absence and many employers will do this, as a matter of course, by conducting a face-to-face ‘return to work’ interview on their first day back. Managers conducting the interview should continue use this as an opportunity to prompt the employee, get a fuller picture and assess for signs of an underlying medical condition.
After all, premenstrual syndrome, or PMS is a serious condition which often mistaken for period pain. Although both can be debilitating, PMS has a wide variety of symptoms beyond the common complaints of period pain, and can last significantly longer. This is why an understanding of the employee’s situation may help an employer judge what the best course of action is and how long the employee may be absent for.
If, and when, period pain cited by the employee as their reason for absence, employers needn’t depart from the usual approach. However, whilst at liberty to assess whether a reason provided for absence is genuine, any employers taking the view that the symptoms aren’t a legitimate illness and therefore not a good enough reason to be absent from work, would be taking a risk which could amount to discriminatory conduct.
Employers are free to review the explanations provided by an employee, consider any trends, and look to approach them to discuss their level of short/intermittent absences and consider what steps each could take to address this.
Any employers who decide that period pain isn’t a good enough reason to be absent from work take a risk which could amount to discriminatory conduct.
However, is it this approach that is ultimately responsible for employees being reluctant to disclose symptoms as their reason for absence?
If period pain remains ‘taboo’ in the workplace, perhaps citing this as a reason for absence carries with it some stigma that makes employees reluctant to share. Normalising period pain – and discussions of women’s health more generally – may therefore the most important barrier to overcome.
What can be done
Employers are clearly not doing enough. Reducing this stigma could help to boost employee engagement, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace.
There’s currently no legal right to ‘period leave’ in the UK, in contrast with countries such as Japan and South Korea who introduced such measures over 50 years ago. However, take-up of this legal right by employees in those countries has, arguably, decreased with wider changes in attitudes and increased protection for employees in the workplace.
Employers can improve their overall approach to short or intermittent absences and help tackle those factors which appear to have exacerbated the concerns of employees when absent for this reason. To do this, employers should:
1. Be empathetic and supportive.
Employers should combat judgmental and prejudicial behaviour in the workplace surrounding the symptoms of period pain. Managers could be better trained on handling return to work interviews to ensure employees are aware the forum is a safe space and an opportunity to understand and explore.
2. Act reasonably.
Employers should always act in accordance with their absence policy and remain reasonable when addressing short or intermittent absences. When assessing for signs of an underlying medical condition, managers should take notice of patterns which indicate heightened symptoms, such as monthly absences for one or two days. Employers too should consider again their policy and procedure for reporting absence, especially where absence trigger points are utilised.
3. Be flexible.
Period pain will affect employees in different ways. Employers should consider the facilities available in the workplace and adjustments to an employee’s role e.g. working hours, requests to occasionally work remotely etc. Employers can help create a positive working environment by being open and flexible if, and when, these symptoms are cited by the employee as their reason for absence.
What can be evidenced from the survey is a broad lack of trust, awareness, and empathy in the workplace about employee absence by reason of period pain or PMS. The absence policy followed, the procedure for reporting and the approach taken by managers at return to work interviews could be the reason why this remains a problem.