It’s that time of the month — for time off?
That’s one of the options a U.K. community arts hub is considering as part of its new “period policy” that could include women working from home or taking time off during menstruation.
Bex Baxter, director of Bristol-based Coexist, was inspired to change workplace policy by her own extreme menstrual pain and seeing other female employees come to work despite theirs. While severe discomfort is not the norm, it affects up to 20 per cent of women.
“It meant that I did always take time off of work or I’d collapse or I’d be laid down in a room in agony,” she said.
Now, she allows herself to take a day and a half to work from home rather than suffer through three excruciating and unproductive days of work. And because she takes time off during her “winter cycle,” she said she’s three times more productive during her “spring cycle” — after her period ends.
“I’ve learned about the cycle and how to listen to it and give it what it needs. My pain is reduced, I don’t black out anymore and I don’t have severe pain that I can’t manage.”
Baxter wants to lead a movement by espousing the benefits of a period positive workplace.
Her firm is hosting a seminar called “Pioneering Period Policy: Valuing natural cycles in the workplace” on March 15. She said 50 companies have signed up to attend.
The seminar is led by Alexandra Pope, author of The Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation, and an “educator at the forefront of the emerging new field of menstruality, exploring woman’s psychospiritual journey from menarche to menopause and beyond.
Pope will present a new workplace model based on the menstrual cycle and explain how embracing policies that accommodate women’s biology can maximize efficiency.
Coexist, where just 7 of 24 employees are men, will work with Pope to hammer out the details of their new policy.
The formalized guidelines will give women in the office — even those who do not suffer from acute pain — a choice of how to work during those days, whether it be working as normal, doing the job from home or taking time off and making it up later.
The aim is to synchronize work flow with natural cycles in order to create a more productive and creative space.
The menstrual cycle is a stress management and self-care tool — a resource that largely goes unrecognized because the subject is considered taboo, Pope said.
“The menstrual cycle is a very healthy dynamic in us, it’s a cycle and like all cycles it’s a positive process,” she said.
“When women are in touch with their cycles they are managing their stress and managing their energy so you do not burn out.”
Both men and women need to be educated about the menstrual cycle so that it is treated as an asset rather than a liability, Pope said. Like all cycles, it is based on a rhythm of periods of activity and rest. Men have the same need for rest, she added, they just don’t have a menstrual cycle to remind them.
Ignoring those rhythms is not only bad for productivity, but also for women’s health, she said.
The American College for Obstetricians and Gynecologist has also recognized the importance of menstrual cycles to well-being. It recommended in December including menstrual cycles as one of the vital signs used to evaluate health.
Baxter, 40, believes that giving women flexibility around their cycles will help relieve the additional stress of trying to repress what’s happening in their bodies — trying to push through to avoid talking about the taboo subject.
“A lot of women want to be valued equally, so women fit inside of male energy cycles and systems in order to try and be seen as valuable.”
However, a workplace that singles out gender differences borders on “benevolent sexism,” a policy envisioned to promote gender equality, but instead undermines women in the workplace, said Ivona Hideg, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University.
She worries that women who use it could become stigmatized and potentially penalized with fewer promotions or other rewards.
It could also perpetuate stereotypes that women are more emotionally volatile or less competent than men, she added.
“Women may not get the larger assignments due to the fact that their time of the month is coming up, so they’ll be given a lighter duty to free them of this challenging assignment, but this challenging assignment might be what you need to get promoted to the next level.”
Many women already struggle to get respect from male co-workers and a leave policy would make women’s biology more salient in the workplace than simply taking a sick day, said Linda Stockton, an assistant professor of strategic management at McMaster University.
“I’ve never heard a woman complain about this type of issue, I’m sure they’ve taken a few days off because of cramps but there’s not a stigma around taking the day off,” she said.
“But to actually put it in a policy so that everybody knows my cycle? I don’t want that out in the public.”
The men in the Coexist office support the initiative and have said they want to understand how the cycle impacts their relationships with women, Baxter said.
The office already operates on flexible hours and allows one man who suffers migraines to take time off when the headaches are the worst, then put the time back in later.
Baxter said she is not worried that the policy will be abused or that the cycles of her female staff are synchronized so that the office will be virtually empty at certain times of the month.
“We’re not going to indulge it. We’ve got to make the business work,” Baxter said.
“And I don’t want women being seen as victim. The menstrual cycle is not actually a sickness, it’s not a problem, but it’s been rendered that for so long.”
Menstrual leave is not a new concept and neither is the debate over whether it’s an inclusive or discriminatory policy. Japan implemented a law in the 1940s that allowed menstruating women to take “seirikyuuka” or physiological leave. Other Asian nations have followed.