Wellbeing | Should employees be allowed to take sick leave for period pains?

Should employees be allowed to take sick leave for period pains?

By Mick Farry – Employee Relations Specialist, Moorepay

According to a recent UK-wide survey, 26% of employees feared their manager wouldn’t consider period pains or PMS symptoms 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 pains when cited by an employee as a reason for absence? Are they 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 to use this as an opportunity to prompt the employee, get a fuller picture and assess for signs of an underlying medical condition.

If, and when, period pains are cited by the employee as their reason for absence, employers needn’t depart from this approach. However, whilst at liberty to assess whether a reason provided for absence is genuine, any employers taking the view that period pains 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.

However, is it this approach that’s ultimately responsible for employees being reluctant to disclose period pains as their reason for absence?
If period pains and PMS symptoms remain ‘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 pains – and discussions about them – may therefore be the most important barrier to overcome.

What can be done

Employers are clearly not doing enough. Reducing the stigma of PMS and period pains 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 by reason of period pains. To do this, employers should:

1. Be empathetic and supportive

Employers should combat judgmental and prejudicial behaviour in the workplace surrounding period pains. 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 period pains, 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

PMS symptoms and period pains 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, period pains 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 pains. 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.

Not sure how to handle these conversations with your employees? Or perhaps you’re looking for expert support on absence management? Click below to find out more.

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