Menstrual Leave: Should Women Be Encouraged To Take Time Off For Period Pain?

03/03/2016 18:08 | Updated 04 March 2016

Periods are a huge part of life for many women. For some, they can be extremely painful or heavy, while for others they can breeze by without a fuss.

The issue of whether women should take time off because of period pain has recently been thrown into the forefront of discussion thanks to Bristol-based company Coexist, which announced it was implementing a 'period policy' earlier this week.

The announcement has proven divisive.

painful period

Coexist's policy encourages women to work in sync with their menstrual cycle. Women are encouraged to talk openly about their periods and go home if they feel unwell. Taking sick leave is not compulsory for their female employees, it's simply an option for those who desperately need it.

In light of the heated debates (both online and in our own office), The Huffington Post UK asked readers whether women should be allowed to take time off due to period pain in a Twitter poll.

A total of 279 people took part, with 56% saying that women should get time off. Meanwhile 44% disapproved of the idea.

Severe period pain and heavy bleeding is a health issue for some, but not all, women. It is estimated that as many as one in 10 women suffer from dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation).

There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary, which is when the muscular wall of the womb contracts, and secondary, which could be a sign of an underlying health condition such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.

Primary dysmenorrhea occurs from the first day of a woman's period and affects the majority of young women who don't take contraceptive pills or who aren't sexually active. It can cause nausea, vomiting and paleness.

With secondary dysmenorrhea, the pain usually begins up to seven days before a woman’s period starts. It will reach peak intensity for the first few days of a period and then gradually reduce in intensity a few days afterwards.

"A common cause is endometriosis," explained Dr Ahmed Ismail, a Harley Street Gynaecology Consultant. It can also occur as a result of fibroids, adenomyosis, STIs, pelvic inflammatory disease and the use of an intrauterine device (IUD).

Dysmenorrhea pain may be 'spasmodic', which results in sharp pelvic cramps at the start of menstrual flow and is often associated with primary dysmenorrhea, or 'congestive' resulting in a deep, dull ache. The latter type of pain is usually associated with secondary dysmenorrhea.

Dr Ismail told HuffPost UK that for women with both types of dysmenorrhea, dependence on painkillers - for example, codeine - can become an issue.

He said: "Physicians are very unhappy for women to take excessive medications rich in codeine, as this can result in dependency and, following this, the women won't be able to tolerate any pain in the body without taking an extremely strong pain relief medication."

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As well as severe period pain, there's also the issue of heavy periods (known as menorrhagia), where a woman loses an excessive amount of blood during consecutive periods. It can occur by itself or in combination with dysmenorrhoea.

According to the NHS, it can "affect a woman physically, emotionally and socially, and can cause disruption to everyday life".

Women with menorrhagia will often go through an unusually high number of tampons or pads, or may need to use them together to control the flow.

They may also experience heavy bleeding that floods through tampons and pads onto clothes or bedding. This can be quite embarrassing in the workplace.

"It is important to note that patients' painful period symptoms can vary in intensity, even in the same person. The pain levels are not static or continuous and, therefore, the woman’s experience will differ from month to month," added Dr Ismail.

One woman who knows the intensity of period pain all too well is Fi Star-Stone, who has endometriosis.

When asked if she would take time off from her job in childcare due to period pain, she said: "No. During my career working with children, I was depended on by both parents, children and my co-workers, so no, it just wouldn't have been an option and I wouldn't have wanted to let anyone down.

"In my case it would've been a huge amount of time to take off each year which would've cause enormous disruption.

"For my employers, sorting out cover at short notice would be impossible, not to mention the effect it would have on the children in my care."

Stone described her period pain as being similar to mid-labour contraction pain.

"Sometimes it's an ongoing sharp pain and severe pressure in the lower back, legs and abdomen which although extremely painful, is manageable with strong painkillers," she added.

So, after bearing all of this in mind, should women be given the option to take time off for period pain?

Dr Ismail concluded: "If you cannot work, you cannot work. Your health comes first so you need to attend to your pain immediately and have some rest.

"Seeking proper gynaecological advice immediately is very important as, by doing so, you can prevent the cycle and pain from reoccurring."

He added: "If left untreated, the pain can affect you dramatically as, not only will you experience severe discomfort, which, inevitably will result in personal unhappiness, but it will also result in you taking much time off work.

"Seek proper advice for regular relief of pain NOT pain relief medication, which are temporary measures. It is important to manage the situation for long-term resolve and comfort."

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