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Network News • 23-02-2023

Is it time to officially recognise menstrual leave?

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 23rd February 2023

The pattern of working from home suited employers during the pandemic, first as space restrictions imposed by health authorities meant less workers and the cost of fumigating the offices should there be an outbreak of Covid was considerable. State employees were also encouraged to stay and work from home as this could be facilitated for thousands of white-collar workers by using electronic equipment under certain secure protocols.

The end of the pandemic saw most of the state employees return to offices and only stay home when reporting sick (some are given concessions to work remotely). The work-from-home revolution comes with added responsibility to key workers with demanding tasks.  In some instances, urgent office work continued to be run from home by staff even with symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath. Many still soldier on.

The other side of the coin, is the hypothesis that staff who habitually report sick can still perform certain other tasks at home.  At law, they are expected to refrain from working. In any case, an HR manager knows who is genuine or those who are lazy and indulge in malingering.  Being sick is part of the human condition and this has been the object of many studies especially in winters during bouts of flu.  It is not going away and the cost of sick absentees will need to be factored in the cost of production. Productivity must improve during times of higher inflation, yet employers find they can only reach the required quotas by dollops of overtime.

Consider the private sector where standards are demanding, occasionally one meets with staff deciding not to work overtime. These indulge in protecting their work-life balance and stop doing enough to get their job done without succumbing to burnout. In Malta, this is giving bosses a burnout since additional staff are impossible to find and it has become impossible to meet targets as the workload increases.

For example, let us quote a study by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University. He has been tracking work-from-home habits since before Covid-19 made them the talk of town. In a recent working paper he presented the results of a randomised controlled trial at a large Chinese multinational company, where sick days fell by 12% for employees working from home two days a week relative to those coming in working full time.

Again, post pandemic, workers who worked habitually from home felt uneasy to call in sick. Unfortunately, even feeling mildly sick can impair brain function, whose effect can feel like a bad hangover. It is difficult to exercise proper judgment if one cannot focus on the task at hand.  Consider the scenario of a female worker reporting sick due to a heavy menstrual pain.  Such cases may not be many yet for these workers it connotes not only physical discomfort but also cognitive impairment.

Dr Claire Azzopardi Lane, the deputy dean of the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing was asked for her opinion on the subject of Malta introducing period pain leave.  A motion was passed in parliament by PL MP Rosianne Cutajar who called for a national discussion about the subject.  She further added that the potential implications of menstrual leave may be determined by how a policy is both worded and implemented; that is, the intentions that underlie the creation of such a policy can determine the outcome.  If menstrual leave legislation intends to prop up traditional gender roles then it will have a certain effect, while if it intends to question those roles, it will have another.

In Malta, the resulting negative perceptions of menstruation can affect women’s personal and professional achievements and success, physical health and their right to feel empowered and experience equality.  So what is period pain, or dysmenorrhea.

The clinical answer is a common monthly occurrence since more than half of menstruating women experience pain for one or two days every month.  For some, the pain is so severe that they are unable to perform normal activities for several days, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Policies regarding menstrual leave will only advance gender equality if they are implemented in environments that are dedicated to combating menstruation stigma and eliminating gender-based injustice. In Spain some have voiced concern a menstrual leave that has been made law could backfire against women by discouraging employers from hiring them.

Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of the UGT, a leading Spanish trade union Is of the opinion that in the long term, it may be one more handicap that women have in finding a job. The law in Spain now gives the right to a three-day “menstrual” leave of absence - with the possibility of extending it to five days - for those with disabling periods, which can cause severe cramps, dizziness and even vomiting.

The menstrual leave requires a doctor's note, and the public social security system will foot the bill. The road to Spain’s menstrual leave has been bumpy . In fact politicians - including those within the ruling coalition - and trade unions have been divided over the policy, which some fear could backfire and stigmatise women in the workplace.

Should women in Malta who suffer from such conditions report sick and possibly work from home?  Consider the ease of tapping away at a laptop and smartphone from a person’s bedroom depending on the severity of the menstrual pain. In the end, considering the consequence to productivity of having skilled females absent from work, this is a social and commercial problem.  This national discussion on the subject is welcome given the high proportion of women at work.

So far, the media reported that Voice of the Workers have given different views on whether there should be a national discussion on menstrual leave while the GWU said that it would welcome such a discussion on special paid leave for menstrual pain. The UHM Voice of the Workers said that it is more of a question of whether the number of sick leave days allotted should be increased, as the issue is of a medical nature.

According to the President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce Marisa Xuereb and the CEO of the Malta Chamber of SMEs Abigail Agius Mamo, days off for menstrual pain should be taken from the existing sick leave, which, they said, is already ample. Ms Xuereb also said that introducing additional leave for specific conditions is not practicable as the list of chronic medical conditions are endless.

In conclusion, the menstrual leave kerfuffle tells a tale of alienated groups. One comprises disenchanted female employees who wonder what is the point of working themselves to the bone. Naturally, the well-being of workers is a crucial factor that needs to be factored in by both private employers and the State. Protecting the mental well-being of employees should be the number one priority in the agenda for the next parliamentary session.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 23rd February 2023
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