How One British Company Is Trying to Make Paid Period Leave Work
Coexist hit headlines in March thanks to its new policy on paid menstrual leave. We went down to the Bristol company's one-day seminar to find out how it's encouraging other businesses to do the same.
Photo by Lucas Saugen via Stocksy
Last year, Coexist manager Bex Baxter noticed a female employee in pain. Working at the reception desk of the British non-profit organization, the employee could barely stand, let alone perform a public-facing job. Unsurprisingly, Baxter urged her to go home and rest. "It was a completely ordinary thought," she explains. "A human rights thought. Initially, they didn't feel able to take the time off and for me as a manager, if someone is in pain, they're entitled to paid leave. I never expected it to blow up like this."
Paid period leave isn't anything new. Japan implemented it in 1947. Russian politician Mikhail Degtyaryov proposed a draft law in 2013 to give the Russian female labor force additional days, off on top of the customary paid sick and vacation leave. "Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colourful expressions of emotional discomfort," Degtyaryov wrote on his website, drawing backlash from women's rights activists who claimed that the proposal could lead to discrimination in the workplace.
Coexist is apparently the first company in England to implement period leave, and coverage of its policy has appeared in almost every major national newspapers in the last month alone. Baxter herself was interviewed on London's LBC Radio and the daytime television program This Morning. The response was not uniformly positive. One radio listener quipped: "For it to become a universal network of ailments for work or whatever... Then where do we end up? When my testicles swell up?" On Twitter, a This Morning viewer asked: "What next? Time off to buy bras?" Despite—or perhaps because of— the extensive media exposure, Baxter wanted to explain her side of the story with a seminar at the company's offices in Bristol, England.
"Pioneering Period Policy: Valuing Natural Cycles in the Workplace," was organized by Coexist and hosted by Alexandra Pope, the author of Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation. She is also the co-founder of the Red School, a company that, in her words, "aims to co-evolve a new conscious way for women, starting with their menstrual cycle."
Upon arrival, everyone already seemed to know each other. The kind of extended hugs, kisses on cheeks, and hand-holding I witness would make most city-dwellers squirm, but it's quickly apparent that this is the kind of place where sensitivity is not only the norm, but fully encouraged.
During her introduction, Baxter informs us that she has looked to Pope as an inspiration for this entire movement. "She's been there since my first thought on this policy," she explains. "She's been a guiding hand during this intensive media coverage and whilst today is the first day we've actually met in person, she's been a huge part of the process." Nodding heads and murmurs of agreement fill the room.
Pope is also the creator of The Women's Quest Workbook, a 13-session self-guiding course specifically designed to initiate women into the 'hidden powers of their body' over 13 menstrual months. "Centuries of oppression of women's knowledge, the cultural devaluation of the Feminine and the loathing of menstruation have meant that we have been locked out of this inner practice," reads the Red School website. "At our workshops, retreats and training programmes you will begin to find again the means to realize this uniquely female path of psychological and spiritual development for yourself."
In her opening section, Pope is quick to tackle the criticisms thrown at the policy over the past few weeks. "It's been accused of being anti-feminist," she begins. "Menstrual awareness is about sustainability; it's about creativity and women being able to celebrate themselves. To me, that's the most feminist thing I can think of."
"It comes down to trust," she says in response to worries that women could exploit the policy and lie about needing time off. "A hierarchical organization is not going to have the same amount of trust as somewhere like Coexist. When people are trusted, people step up to the mark; organizations must first feel the necessity to do it."
Men are not out of place here—there are around ten in the audience out of a hundred attendees—and their presence allows Pope to address concerns of sexism. Explaining that men too experience "cycles" of well-being, she says that it's a policy both sexes could take full advantage of. "We all have cycles, it's just that women can anticipate them."
"During your winter phase, your body is telling you to go inwards, to shut the rest of the world out," she explains. "Our culture tells us to keep going not just through our periods but through absolutely everything. Tuning into your cycle is one of the strongest mindfulness tools for women."
It becomes clear that the seminar is moving far beyond the notion of a period policy and more about a menstrual movement. "It's hard to deal with premenstrual vulnerability if you're always expected to go, go, go," she continues. "If we talk about mental wellbeing within the workplace, why can't we talk about cycle awareness? It's the core of mental well-being and should be fundamental to any mental health process; it builds self-esteem and a kindness towards yourself."
Some companies speaking at the seminar have already implemented a menstrual leave policy of sorts: TreeSisters, a volunteer-led collective of women who crowd-fund for tropical reforestation, and Babes in the Woods, a company that organizes hen parties in forests. Both have implemented a weekly team meeting where employees are encouraged to explain how they're doing on each day of their cycle; the tasks for the week are then adjusted accordingly. Whilst they say that it's not an "official period policy" per se, both their speakers explain that it's a working method that has improved office productivity and built trust among employees.
"Women will actually take fewer sick days off with period leave because they're more in tune with their well-being," argues Pope. "Parts of the cycle produce an energy to harness in the workplace. The more connected to yourself you are, the more power you will harness and as a manager, it's your job to utilize this energy and this power from your employees."
As the floor is opened up to comments and questions, it's clear that there's something larger at play. Women claim Pope has changed their life, explaining their struggles with mental health and menstrual pain, crying with gratitude as they thank her.
One mother discusses sex education and the lack of menstrual information. "They are told, 'Don't get pregnant,' and that's it." Another attendee echoes her concerns. "50 percent of primary school girls would have started their periods before they've left and many of those schools don't even have sanitary bins in the toilets. They're immediately taught to hide, to be ashamed of what's happening to their bodies."
One woman asks how companies would even begin to put a policy like this in the workplace."Just keep telling the story of your cycle," says Pope matter-of-factly. "Build it up. It's simply a numbers game."
To Pope and many of the participants here, period leave does seem to be an easy—even revolutionary—policy for women in the workplace. But matters of privacy issues spring immediately to mind—what if you're not comfortable telling your employer about your cycle? Or if you're a trans woman who doesn't get periods? There's a difference between claiming an sick day and feeling obliged to divulge the workings of your uterus to your boss.
Freelance journalist Fiona Young-Brown worked in Japan for a company that had period leave already written into her contract. She says she didn't feel able to use it. "I was working in an all male office in rural Japan, where as a Western woman everything I did was already under scrutiny—no way was I going to use it," she said. "I only know one woman who used it; her attitude was that they'd be too embarrassed to question her so she used it as a 'I don't feel like going to work' card whenever she felt like it."
When I speak to Baxter after the seminar, she says that Coexist doesn't make period leave mandatory, or make women disclose their menstrual cycle if they don't want to. "I think it's a start of a conversation; organizations need to just consider there are benefits to doing it," she explains. "At Coexist, it is not mandatory—women do not have to take time off on their periods if they don't want to."
She also wants to help other companies get on board with period leave in her side gig as a facilitator and leadership coach. "I am available to help other businesses if this is something they want to learn about," she says. "We just want to celebrate and start talking about menstruation in a positive way, rather than the negativity which has shrouded the cycle."