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Could menstrual leave policies work in the UK?

Spain has announced reforms which will allow women to take up to three days menstrual leave per month, becoming the first European country to do so.

The new laws include a requirement for schools to provide sanitary products, making pads and tampons free for women in marginalised circumstances and removing VAT on the products in supermarkets.

The move is a positive step for supporting women's health both in and outside the workplace but could such reforms be implemented in the UK?

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Charlie Thompson, employment lawyer and partner at law firm Stewarts, said that he's concerned stigma may hold UK workers back.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: A key factor here is how many employees will be willing to take this leave, as in some organisations, there may be fears of stigma.

"There is also a wider issue in the UK of people not taking the leave that they are already entitled to – culturally, many employees are highly likely to continue working while unwell.

"In many organisations that offer ‘unlimited holiday’, people end up taking less time off. So it is not clear whether offering menstrual leave will necessarily address the core issue here."

Rather than having it as a blanket law across the country, Thompson also noted that companies are free to implement their own policies regarding menstrual health.

However Lizzy Kurtzer, Animas ICF accredited coach with experience of launching menstrual policies in the workplace, was optimistic that the UK could eventually follow Spain's lead.

She told HR Magazine: "A move like this will empower those who menstruate to advocate for their own health, promote awareness of menstrual cycles and I believe, ultimately improve productivity.

"I recently launched a menstruation and menopause policy within my own workplace. To my surprise and delight, there was an overwhelming support for the initiative from all levels. Of course, there will always be barriers. But with an increasingly Millennial and Gen Z dominated workforce, it’s only a matter of time before the domino effect hits the UK. I believe that within the next decade, it’ll be the norm.”

Emma Cox, CEO of charity Endometriosis UK, welcomed the discussion around women's menstrual health.

"We need to challenge the historic squeamishness and silence around menstrual health and have more open conversations on this issue," she told HR magazine. "Anyone experiencing pain which means they need to be absent from work should expect to be listened to, believed, and receive support which is appropriate to the type and severity of symptoms they experience.

"This would be the case with any other condition, so why do employers and government often fail to treat endometriosis and menstrual health conditions in the same way?"

Kurtzer added that the perceived taboo around menstrual health can make women feel like criminals.

She said: "For those who menstruate at work, it’s become routine to tuck tampons into jumper sleeves to smuggle them from desk to toilet, almost as though carrying an illegal substance through an airport, averting the attention of sniffer dogs.

"Worse still, people habitually excuse debilitating menstruation pains on mysterious ‘stomach bugs’ or ‘headaches’ to male and female colleagues alike."

Cox added that any policies should recognise the unique challenges presented by different medical conditions.

She continued: "While this measure is well-meaning, a blanket policy risks downplaying the seriousness of symptoms that some of those with menstrual conditions such as endometriosis, heavy menstrual bleeding and dysmenorrhea (sever period pain) may experience.

"Rather than generic menstrual leave, we want endometriosis recognised for the chronic condition it is, deserving of the same support as any other illness.