Spain may soon legislate paid menstrual leave. Should Canada follow suit?

Click to play video: 'Calls for removing stigma, providing free period products on Menstrual Health Day'
Calls for removing stigma, providing free period products on Menstrual Health Day
WATCH: Calls for removing stigma, providing free period products on Menstrual Health Day – May 28, 2021

As Spain becomes the first European country to propose a bill on paid time off for people who suffer from painful periods, a gynecologist in Toronto says menstrual leave is something Canadian companies can consider without having to wait for a bill to come through.

The Spanish bill introduced on May 17, if passed, would allow those who suffer from severe menstrual pain to take up to three days of leave per month.

“Abnormal periods can be disabling due to pain or due to severe anemia from excessive flow,” said Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, a gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Center.

“Menstrual leave isn’t a new thing … and it doesn’t have to be on a federal or provincial level, but companies can do that on their own,” said Kirkham.

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Currently, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Zambia have policies that grant menstrual leave, but until now, no European country had proposed such a possibility. Canada and the U.S. do not grant menstrual leave, federally or provincially.

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In an email to Global News, Johise Namwira, spokesperson at the office of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, said that at this time, Canada’s efforts “are focused on improving access to menstrual products through the creation of a Pilot Menstrual Equity Fund.”

“It is a basic need that upholds Canadians’ sexual and reproductive health rights, and responds to concerns raised by Canadian activists, municipalities, grassroots organizations, and academics.”

Namwira did not specify whether Canada is considering policies that grant menstrual leave when asked a second time.

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Kirkham said she encourages “(period leave) because if you’re an employee and you see that your employer understands the situation, that’s going to make you feel good about staying with that company.”

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In 2021, the founder of the DivaCup menstrual device based in Kitchener, Ont., launched a paid period leave policy offering menstruating workers 12 days off per year. According to a report by The Canadian Press, the decision came amid a growing focus on employee well-being that emerged during the pandemic, with some workplaces expanding mental health benefits or making hybrid work arrangements permanent.

The company said at the time that the policy was formed as a response to the stigma surrounding periods in the workplace — an age-old taboo that’s left menstruating co-workers covertly sharing tampons, Advil and heating pads to cope with symptoms while in the office.

DivaCup even released a step-by-step guide to help companies create their own paid menstrual leave policy and called the process “simple” and “straightforward.”

“Menstrual cramps and pain are incredibly common,” the company states in its guide.

“When you think about it, it makes sense to offer paid menstrual leave to your employees. Therefore, it is not only the right thing to do, but well-rested and healthy employees are also better for business,” the company website says.

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Period cramps are so common that Kirkham said doctors like herself spend considerable time after work helping patients in pain caused by menstruation get time off work or school.

But she mentioned that doctors’ notes “add to the societal cost of periods because they require extra time and cost to the patient (uninsured service), doctor, other affected patients (waitlist), and employees.”

Kirkham is hopeful though that Canadians are starting to talk about periods and take menstrual pains more seriously because of what’s happening in Spain.

“People can have these debilitating periods from the time they’re 14, or 15 … so we really need to remove the stigma and taboo about talking about periods when it’s such a common thing,” said Kirkham.

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She said periods that cause women or people who have a uterus to miss school or work are not normal.

“(The pain) actually should be looked after, and investigated (by doctors),” said Kirkham.

A 2020 study in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada found that more than 500,000 women in Canada aged 18 to 49 reported experiencing endometriosis, with symptoms ranging from fatigue and nausea to severe cramping and pain.

“Since puberty, I’ve had painful periods that (until recently) were somewhat manageable with painkillers. But for years and years, I’ve struggled with fatigue. It’s impacted me daily since my mid 20s. For a lot of years, I chalked up the fatigue as something that just came with adult life,” said Leah Heather, in a Facebook post.

Heather has been dealing with endometriosis since she first got her period as a teenager.

According to the Mayo Clinic, endometriosis is a disorder where the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus — the endometrium — grows outside of the uterus.

“Endometriosis most commonly involves your ovaries, fallopian tubes and the tissue lining your pelvis,” the Mayo Clinic stated on its website. 

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Heather said people often don’t understand how hard it is to work while experiencing menstrual pain.

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“(The) pain so severe that you need to take so much Advil that it’s actually dangerous for your liver. (The) fatigue (is) so bad that you’re fighting to keep your eyes open and just kind of pretending to type away at your desk because you can’t actually focus on anything,” said Heather in an interview with Global News.

“It’s brain fog to the point that your manager might as well be speaking gibberish to you. It’s forcing yourself to be present when you simply can’t be. You’re not being useful, you’re not getting any work done anyway,” she added.

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Heather said if a person is able to spend a full day recouping, then they’d be able to go into the office the following day feeling more like themselves and be more productive.

“They’ll probably make up that missed time within two hours,” she said.

Does she want Canadian companies to start offering paid menstrual leaves?

“Yes,” she said, hoping that all companies consider it for the well-being of employees.

— with files from Global News’ Kathryn Mannie and The Canadian Press

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