Can my employee take time off work for period pain?

  • Health & Safety
Women holding her stomach in pain
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

You’re about to start work when you get a call from your employee. It’s that time of the month, they say. And they tell you they’ve spent most of the night doubled over with agonising cramps. They say they’re not fit to work and ask if they can take the day off.

Now you’re flipping through your company handbook, hoping to find something on period leave. Is there such a thing? Does your worker have a legal right to time off for a painful period? And if they’re in too much pain to work this time, will they struggle next month? And the month after that?

While not everyone experiences debilitating periods, knowing how to support those who do suffer will help you improve staff wellbeing and reduce absences in your workplace.

So if you have an employee who’s suffering from painful periods, here are the legal bits you should know and how you can help them…

Period symptoms may strike down your staff

Period stigma in the workplace means a lot of employees suffer in silence. Many still think that period-talk is taboo and feel a lot of shame and embarrassment if the topic comes up.

Period symptoms will differ from one person to the next and some may experience more pain and discomfort than others.

Common symptoms include:

  • stomach cramps
  • aches in hips, back, and thighs
  • headaches and migraines
  • dizziness 
  • constipation and diarrhoea

If your employee’s symptoms are severe, it may seriously affect their performance at work or leave them unable to work at all.

Period leave doesn’t exist in this country

In February 2023, Spain became the first country in Europe to approve a law on period leave.

So, for people who suffer from period pain and other menstrual symptoms that make them unfit for work, this means they can get three days of paid leave. In severe cases, this could extend to five days. To take this leave, employees must provide a note from their doctor.

Currently, the UK doesn’t offer period leave. And it doesn’t appear that period leave is on the Government’s agenda right now.  

But you can still give your employee the time off

There’s no law that says you have to let your employee take time off for a painful period.

But while period leave doesn’t exist in the UK, you can still offer this type of leave if you want to. It would be at your discretion if you wanted to offer this as paid or unpaid leave.

If your employee is unfit for work because of a painful period, they could take this as sick leave. You cannot refuse sick leave if your employee asks for it.

If your employee regularly suffers from bad periods…

If your employee often asks for days off for painful periods, it may start to cause issues for your business. And while your employee shouldn’t work if they’re not fit to work, you can take steps to help them feel more comfortable and reduce their need for time off.

Even a small change can make a big difference. For example, you could consider:

  • allowing your employee to work flexibly, which might mean letting them reduce their hours, take longer breaks or work from home
  • relaxing your uniform rules if your employee has to wear a tight-fitting or light-coloured
  • leaving out period-related absences from your sickness score if you keep one
  • providing free sanitary products in toilets

Watch out for discrimination risks

You could only get in trouble for discriminating against your employee if you treat them unfairly for having a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. A protected characteristic could be their age, race, sex, or disability. 

Period pain isn’t covered by law. However, in theory, it may have the potential to qualify as a disability in some cases. That’s if someone could prove that it relates to a physical or mental condition that has a long-term impact on their ability to work. There’s no evidence of this ever happening yet though.

Or, it may be possible for it to be protected under sex discrimination because only females and those assigned female at birth can menstruate.

But while it may seem unlikely that you’d be at risk of discrimination, your employee could still raise a grievance against you if they’re in pain and discomfort at work and you offer no support. That’s why it’s good to sit down with your employee and figure out an arrangement that suits you both.

And here’s how you show you’re serious about breaking period stigma

To show your staff you’re an inclusive employer who cares about their wellbeing and cutting period stigma, you could:

You could introduce policies on periods and menopause. This helps raise awareness about periods and tells your employees how you intend to support them. If you offer paid leave, you can outline how many days you provide in a year. You can also cover flexible working, and any facilities and products you provide.

You could let staff who struggle with painful periods work from home or change their hours temporarily.

Setting up and amending policies and processes can be time-consuming. You also have to be careful about the legal wording you use, or your documentation could have loopholes that go against your business interests.

It’s why over 44,000 UK business leave their HR and health & safety to Peninsula. Because:

  • Peninsula has forty years of experience helping businesses to combat their legal risks
  • Over 99% of people rate Peninsula Excellent or Good on Trustpilot

Got a question about a staff or document issue? Ask a HR expert for free by calling 0800 029 4389

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