By Monalisa Padhee and Shubha Nagesh
In the second week of August, Zomato, an Indian food delivery firm, announced that all its women employees (including transgender employees) can avail up to 10 days of paid period leaves each year. While this is notable for such a large company in India, countries like Japan and South Korea and closer home, Bihar, have been providing period leaves for some time now.
While Zomato’s policy has been welcomed by many who believe it will help women, others worry that if women take it, they may face stigma and/or women’s absences may affect workplace productivity.
Certainly, these are considerations, but the potential positives of a period policy outweigh the negatives. For organisations who wish to consider such a policy too, here are some of the practical implications, particularly for smaller organisations and ones where the majority of the employees are women.
First, is having a period a justified reason for taking leave? For some women, it is.
Most women experience some discomfort on the first and/or second days, but for 10 per cent of women, the pain and cramps can be severe and incapacitating. In addition to cramps in the lower abdomen, associated symptoms include a dull ache that radiates down the back and thighs, nausea, loose stools, headache or even dizziness. For some women, these symptoms can be debilitating and therefore reduce the ability to carry out normal functions at work and/or home. So, while not all women will need a day off, making it available to those who do can be very beneficial to them.
The physical discomfort and pain women experience regarding their period is rarely discussed openly. While certainly more women talk about periods today, the main focus is about access to sanitary pads, safe disposal, and alternate forms of menstrual products. The Zomato decision uniquely brings focus to one of the most crucial but ignored conversations around menstruation and takes forward the menstrual equity to far greater heights.
What would a good company policy look like?
Since there is a wide array of symptoms and variation in severity and when during the menstrual cycle the discomfort (both physical and emotional) is worse, company policies should be flexible and allow women to decide if they need one or two or no days off each month. Indeed, flexibility in taking leave in any part of the menstrual cycle will also allow accommodation of the different needs. The inclusive policy should also provide flexi-time work or work from home, for women who want to work but from the comfort of their home, and at times that are convenient for them.
Since menstrual cycles are very personal and private, some women may be hesitant to take it as then everyone will know they are on their period. Thus, the policy implementation will require sensitivity, emotional intelligence and empathy. With support services including the provision of counsellor services, medical therapy, empathy from human resources and team members including opportunities of individual or group sessions for sharing and discussion which can be availed at your own will, more and more women may open up and become compliant with time. For women who still do not want to share information with everyone, the HR team can devise a private channel for logging menstrual leave. Despite a small possibility that some may misuse the policy, benefits of implementing this policy far outweigh this small risk.
In countries that already have period leave, not many women opt to use it because of the fear of social stigma; leave could be perceived as a “sign of weakness” by men and could lead to lost opportunities and harassment, even. In order to ensure that women feel confident to avail this leave, it is important to sensitise male co-workers and make them part of the wider discussions around menstrual health, all of which could inculcate a conducive work environment recognising unique gender-based needs.
Even beyond menstruation days off, organisations should consider implementing women-friendly policies that are built around women’s unique needs, wellbeing and health. Creating safe and comfortable work environments that respect biological needs will stand out and be seen as leaders and desirable places to work.
Of course, if women take the leave, companies may worry about reduced productivity, given the number of days women could take off work, particularly in those organisations that have predominantly women. However, when women come back rested and are confident that their workplaces could be supportive of their health and provide remedial measures to ensure their well-being, loyalty could escalate, and more women will lean in towards the organisational goal and mission.
At an individual level, women who could avail this leave and have a positive menstrual experience could provide the choice of paid menstrual leave to any of their own domestic staff, expanding the benefits to the informal sector, by just paying it forward.
Zomato’s bold initiative should be viewed as a long-overdue policy shift that sets the tone and the pace for others. It will be interesting to see how leaders who steer the conversation on gender equality will be able to replicate this initiative, retaining the needs of female and transgender employees as one of the main pillars of organisational growth.
This is an idea that definitely stirs the blood and is worth supporting.
Padhee, PhD, leads the Women Wellness Initiative, Barefoot College, Rajasthan and is a senior Aspen New Voices fellow and Atlantic Fellow for Global Health Equity. Shubha is a medical doctor. She works for the Latika Roy Foundation, Dehradun and is a senior Atlantic Fellow in Global Health Equity