The introduction of a ‘period policy’ by British company Co-exist, earlier this year, has sparked a debate as to the pros and cons of menstrual leave and its effect on gender equality and productivity in the workplace.
However, while private businesses in South Africa are free to dictate their own leave policies in this regard, it’s highly unlikely that this trend will catch on in mainstream labour policies in the country.
According to UK companies where the ‘period leave’ policy has been implemented, despite affecting more than half the population, period pains are still considered taboo, and many women are embarrassed to acknowledge that they are in pain.
Menstrual pain can be severe, and far worse than typical ailments and illnesses that get employees booked off. The ‘period policy’ is aimed at challenging the stigma attached to periods, and to work for, rather against employees’ natural cycles.
Bex Baxter, CEO of one of the companies where the policy has taken root, says the policy is not about giving female employees more time off – but rather working more flexibly.
“It is about synchronising work with the natural cycles of the body,” she said.
According to Safiyyah Buckas, an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright, menstrual leave or ‘period leave’ is not as novel a concept as we think.
“Many East Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and South Korea recognise period pain as a legitimate reason for taking time off,” she said.
South Africa’s position
In South Africa, companies have shown some progressive policies when it comes to paid leave across gender lines.
But despite these progressive strides, the concept of period leave is unlikely to make any mainstream entry into South African labour law.
According to Buckas, South African law provides for a statutory sick leave entitlement of 30 or 36 days of sick leave for a 5 or 6 day working week, respectively. However, “nothing prevents an employer from offering additional employment benefits to its employees over and above the statutory minimum,” she said.
“Menstrual leave recognises the fact that certain women experience severe period associated pains which debilitates their ability to productively contribute in the workplace. Addressing the issue of period pain may therefore result in greater productivity due to increased loyalty amongst female staff members who no longer have to suffer in silence,” Buckas said.
However, such a policy also presents potential problems for women in the workplace, the legal expert noted.
“The introduction of such a policy may weaken the position of women in the workplace by discouraging certain employers from hiring women due to the associated costs of paid menstrual leave; fear of abuse of such leave; as well as the negative effect on productivity, where female employees require days of leave at a time.”
“Additionally, such a policy may go unused for this very reason and/or for fear of having to label leave as ‘period leave’ for fear of social stigma, especially in predominantly male work environments.”
Likely to lead to less productivity
Recruitment expert Cindy Norcott told IOL in March that absenteeism statistics in South Africa pointed to a situation where a large percentage of women would likely take ‘period leave’ without really needing it.
Norcott also echoed the view that period leave could put females at a disadvantage, as employers might seek to rather employ staff who wouldn’t need such time off.
Recent findings from the South African Payroll Association (SAPA) showed that an average of 15% of employees are absent on any given day, costing the South African economy an estimated R16 billion every year.
According to SAPA director, Cathie Webb, only one in three of absent workers who take sick leave are actually sick, further emphasising the point that the system could be abused.
While employers weigh the pros and cons of period leave, Buckas suggests an interim solution may be the implementation of a leave policy akin to “duvet days” – which will allow female employees to take leave without prior notice and without having to provide a normally accepted reason for their absence.
“This leave could be regulated and included as an additional leave benefit, in this way preventing abuse,” she said.
“Granting women time off for menstrual leave may seem an alien idea, but so was paternity leave until a short while ago. The concept of period leave may therefore well gain great popularity as employers attempt to find novel ways to address the work life balance of employees who work extensive hours.”
According to SAPA, however, no company is obligated or legally required to offer the benefits of additional leave elements – and in fact, many companies are reducing leave allowances due to the current poor economic climate.
“While some companies do not stipulate leave in their contracts, others have very precise regulations and it is up to the employee to know how their company handles the issue of leave,” she said.
Source: Business Tech