Why aren't people taking 'period leave' in Spain?

period  Latin American business woman is sick at work, employee with curly hair and glasses has severe stomach pain, businesswoman working inside office building using laptop
In the UK alone, 96% of women aged between 16 and 40 have experienced period pain, according to a survey. (Liubomyr Vorona via Getty Images)

One year ago, Spain introduced the right to paid menstrual leave for women if they experience painful periods, making it the first European country to do so. However, official figures show that very few employees have taken advantage of this leave.

In the 11 months since the law was brought in, so-called "period leave" has only been taken 1,559 times, according to data obtained by the Guardian from Spain’s ministry of inclusion, social security and migration.

In a country of roughly 49 million people, this is a tiny proportion of workers. So why aren’t people who menstruate taking time off if they need it?

While some may argue that menstruation isn’t enough to warrant time off work, statistics show this isn’t the case. In the UK alone, 96% of women aged between 16 and 40 have experienced period pain — and 59% report it as severe — a survey of 3,000 people by the charity Wellbeing of Women found. Research suggests 73% of people who menstruate have struggled to work because of periods, because of pain, low energy and stress.

Read more: How acts of microfeminism can help stamp out bias at work

And this stress isn’t just because employees are in pain. One in five attribute it to not being able to take time off to deal with any menstrual problems, while 10% say they’re stressed because of unsupportive management. So when given the chance, why aren’t people taking the time off that they need?

The wording of the legislation is partly to blame. When it was finally passed, only people who had already been diagnosed with conditions such as endometriosis — which causes severe pelvic pain and excessive bleeding — could take period leave.

Perhaps most significantly, introducing the right to take leave doesn’t eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation and menstrual problems. Not all employers will be easy to approach about taking time off, even when a woman is within her rights to do so.

Some workers may fear retribution for requesting period leave, and taking legal action against an employer — and potentially losing your job and income as a result — may be an unrealistic prospect. Spain’s unemployment rate is rising and in the first quarter of 2024, it soared to 12.29%. It has the highest unemployment rate of all European Union states.

“Menstruation and period pain can be a sensitive issue and one that is often not widely spoken about,” says Kate Palmer, employment services director at the HR firm Peninsula.

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“Some employees may not, therefore, feel able to discuss the real reason why they are not well enough to work or why they are asking for last minute annual leave, with their manager. Some people associate women’s health issues such as periods with shame and secrecy, or find it to be a taboo topic.”

Critics of the concept of period leave say it will only further entrench patriarchal views of women, which could potentially lead to further discrimination in the workplace. There’s no doubt that employers need to recognise how menstruation and conditions such as endometriosis affect people at work, but some argue that offering leave incorrectly implies that menstruation is a disability. This, they say, plays into the long-standing stereotype of women as weaker and therefore less productive, which could lead to fewer women being offered jobs or being overlooked for promotions.

At the moment, there is no specific menstrual leave in the UK, so it’s at the discretion of the employer if they do want to offer it to their employees. If not, and an employee is too unwell to work then they must rely on sickness absence or annual leave, or as many do, suffer in silence at their desks.

But, as studies show, ignoring the fact that workers menstruate doesn’t benefit employers. Someone who is in pain, drained or fraught because they are on their period isn’t going to be able to work to their full capacity. And offering time off if needed — as well as a safe, open environment in which to discuss health problems — is key to ensuring workers feel valued.

“Employers should consider what support they can provide and whether there is more that they can do. Providing support may mean that some employees are able to stay in work when they would otherwise have called in sick or asked for last minute annual leave,” says Palmer.

“Employees may need more frequent bathroom breaks, for example, or be allowed to wear different clothing to what is usually required,” she adds.

Read more: Menopause at work: What adjustments should employers make?

“Provide free period products at work. This may not sound like much but it reinforces that you care about your employees and their health.”

Hybrid working, reduced or flexible hours or remote working can also benefit menstruating workers. Additionally, training staff on menstrual health is key.

“Creating an open and inclusive environment can help employees feel able to discuss support that they need. If they do need to take time off, such an environment can help them to feel that they are able to discuss the circumstances with their manager,” says Palmer.

And even if you don’t have the right to period leave, you still have legal rights. Period pain is not a protected characteristic, but disability is — along with gender. This means that people with disabilities are protected from receiving unfair treatment because of their condition and you cannot treat an employee less favourably on account of their gender.

“Given that menstruation is a gender specific condition, and with a number of health conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis causing severe period pain, it’s important that employers do all they reasonably can to support staff who experience painful periods, or period-related illnesses,” explains Palmer. “Failure to do so could leave an employer open to a potential claim for disability or gender discrimination.”

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