When The Hell Are We Going To Get Menstrual Leave In Australia?

Photographed by Lexi Laphor for Refinery29 Australia.
“When you're going through a pain flare, it’s like someone’s shoved an axe into your stomach and you're walking around with that, unable to stop the pain. You can black out, you're vomiting. Your body goes through hot and cold sweats. You can go through massive confusion fatigue.”
This is Alice Williams’ experience with endometriosis, a chronic condition that affects one in 10 Australians who menstruate. 
With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that two in three people who menstruate have wanted to call in sick from work due to period pain. But according to a 2021 study conducted by the sex toy brand, Womanizer, only half of those people have actually done so. 
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There are endless reasons for this: shame, stigma, guilt, embarrassment, fear of unprofessionalism, the binds of presenteeism, capitalism’s high standards and plain old misogyny. 
But multiple Australian unions are hoping to change this by advocating for 10 to 12 days of paid annual menstrual leave. The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), United Workers’ Union, Transport Workers’ Union, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, and the Australian Workers’ Manufacturing Union are currently planning a joint campaign to introduce these Fair Work Act protections.
“Some women suffer throughout their entire working life. From the age they begin menstruating, to pregnancy complications… followed by menopause,” says AWU Queensland State Secretary Stacey Schinnerl
“With this in mind, 10 days personal leave per year, and the current flexibility arrangements under the Fair Work Act (FWA) are insufficient in recognising the health concerns women face, in contrast to men — who receive the same entitlements but experience none of those health hurdles.”
Currently, there are no mandated corporate sick leave policies that specifically tackle menstrual pain, though some forward-thinking organisations have taken it upon themselves to implement internal policies. Since 2017, Melbourne-based Victorian Women’s Trust has given its employees 12 days of paid menstrual leave a year. Sydney-based Future Super introduced a six-day menstrual leave entitlement in January last year.
In May 2021, Sydney-based company Modibodi began its paid menstrual, menopause and miscarriage leave program, giving its workers up to 10 days off a year or the option to work from home.
"These are common experiences, that can be associated with emotional or physical discomfort and be embarrassing or difficult to manage within the workplace. Creating a supportive environment that allows people to take leave or work from home, instead of feeling like they need to hide the pain, or have awkward conversations creates a more positive and productive environment," Modibodi's Head of Sustainability and Public Affairs Sarah Forde tells Refinery29 Australia.
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"Having access to menstrual leave at Modibodi has been a lifesaver. I've used it three times so far this year when I've barely been able to get out of bed, due to period pain and exhaustion. Everyone's periods are different, but knowing I don't have to go into the office and push through has made life that little bit easier," employee Aimee recently shared on Instagram.
For Williams, who is the founder of period pain relief company Ovira, severe period pain has proved to be a major setback throughout her career. “I used to be embarrassed talking about my periods, I was afraid to speak up. I think there is this stigma around women being in pain; we’re not believed. I didn't even tell my employers that I had endometriosis or extreme period pain, I used to just say I was unwell or had a cold or something,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.

"If [women] do speak up, they're treated differently. They're not promoted as much. They're not given as many opportunities. They're not given as many pay rises as their peers."

alice williams, founder of ovira
She points to the medical industry’s tangled past with hysteria that dismisses women’s wildly uncontrolled emotions as ‘crazy’, a misconception that continues through to today. “If [women] do speak up, they're treated differently. They're not promoted as much. They're not given as many opportunities. They're not given as many pay rises as their peers,” Williams says. 
Womanizer found that 52% of global respondents believed that it is not socially acceptable to cite period pain as a reason for calling in sick. But pain itself can sometimes just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to navigating chronic illness diagnoses. 
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“Menstruating is something that can be really difficult [and] we have accepted that period pain is normal when it is not,” mental health clinician and endometriosis sufferer Naomi Holt tells Refinery29 Australia. She says that these proposed days off could be beneficial for people who don't feel like they currently have the time to look into medical and support options, which can be draining in terms of finances, time and transport.
Holt also shares that her menstrual pain dramatically improved after surgery, though knows that this isn’t the case for everyone. “I was lucky to have that experience and I know that you need time to be able to go on that journey [which] can be really difficult if you're working full-time hours.” 
Treatment options for disorders like endometriosis can take the form of multiple surgeries, which current sick leave options cannot cover. “For me, I needed at least a week and a half of time off work to recover from surgery and it took two to three weeks to fully feel better. That's all your sick leave for your year gone just from the surgery you need,” she says. 

"If we were to really cater for flexibility [and] a very equitable workforce, maybe we have multiple types of leave… rather than lumping it all under sick leave, which is a very generic statement."

Isabella Serg, HR Business Partner
HR Business Partner Isabella Serg suggests that this current push for menstrual leave is a launching pad for more inclusive leave structures. “I hope, in future, employers can be more progressive in terms of how they think about catering leave for different segments of our population, where we all have individual and unique issues,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
“If we were to really cater for flexibility [and] a very equitable workforce, maybe we [would] have multiple types of leave… rather than lumping it all under sick leave, which is a very generic statement,” she says.
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Currently, this imperfect structure means many menstruators are left to use their sick leave (or even annual leave) to cover their period cramps — but how fair is this?
Serg acknowledges the sensitivity and cultural stigmas that come with conversations about menstruation in the workplace but stresses that open communication and normalisation of periods are what’s needed to move the needle. 
“It’s about being upfront with your manager about some of the challenges you're facing and being really clear about the sorts of flexibility that you need. Look at the communication style of your manager and how they like to communicate with you, and don't be afraid to start the conversation.”
While 97% of respondents from Womanizer’s study said that menstrual leave has never been discussed by their employer, it may be a change that’s in Australia's not-too-distant future. 
Williams agrees, saying, “The reality is, until we all band together and start speaking up about it — not only talking about it — but introducing policies like this, [things] are never going to change.”
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