From the age of 12 I’ve suffered from severe period pain. I've missed school, countless birthday parties, and cut short dance lessons. I’ve spent the majority of my teenage to adult years suspended in pain mid-conversation, throwing up, or flat out exhausted the day after a long night of excruciating pain.
For years I felt like my symptoms and level of pain was downplayed by doctors to the point where I even questioned whether it was normal to feel this awful. Now aged 23, after years of what felt like pestering doctors, I was finally told I had Primary Dysmenorrhea. This condition can cause severe and frequent menstrual cramping from severe and abnormal uterine contractions.
In the UK, studies estimate that four in five women experience menstrual pain – so why is this still a taboo subject, especially in the workplace? UK charities have now called on the government to provide leave for those who suffer from menstrual pain. It comes as Spanish politicians approve a new draft bill that would allow those with painful periods to have three days off a month – and it could be extended to five days for extreme reasons. Current UK employment law states workers should use sick leave if they need time off work – and that’s something that needs to change.
The idea that women could have this time off would dramatically change the lives of many who suffer from debilitating pain. 30-year-old Keisha Meek from Leeds says menstrual leave would be a ‘massive relief’ for women – especially those who suffer with endometriosis. 'Menstrual leave would provide women with protection and give them peace of mind because you know you can rest. Also, it would provide women with that much needed financial support. '
Keisha has had endometriosis since the age of 11, but wasn't diagnosed until she was 21-years-old. She was also diagnosed with Polycystic Ovaries at 17.
Endometriosis is a condition where cells similar to the ones in the lining of the womb are found elsewhere in the body. Each month these cells react in the same way to those in the womb, building up and then breaking down and bleeding, causing pain. In the UK, around 1.5 million women are currently living with the condition. Endometriosis can affect you from puberty to menopause, although the impact may be felt for life.
Keisha tells Grazia, ‘I've been pulled into multiple disciplinary meetings and shouted out for being off sick so much – nobody knew or understood what endometriosis was. In the workplace people don't talk about periods. It’s a shamed subject for some reason. With endometriosis it does cause heavy, painful periods but you're also in pain all the time - it's not just during your time of the month. So, when you get your period, the pain just escalates. I'd say normally my pain on a scale is 6/10, but with my period pain it's 9/10.
For many women the pain they have experienced has left them in critical condition. 'I've ended up in A&E and being pumped with morphine due to my period a few times – no one can work like that,' says Keisha. 'I’ve been put into a chemical menopause three times now, which stopped my period, which enabled me to keep working. But we shouldn't be having to go through a forced menopause from as young as 26 just to be able to cope and work - it's not good for you.'
Keisha set up support group – National Endometriosis Survivors Support – in December 2017 on Facebook, which now has over 3,000 members, to help other women. ‘I’d just had my ninth surgery - I didn't know anyone else with endometriosis and I felt really lonely.’ She stumbled across an American support group, but couldn’t find any in Yorkshire where she lives - so, she set up her own. 'I've heard from teachers who were fired for taking "too much" sick leave. If the head teacher can do that, what happens to the girls who have symptoms in schools?' she asks.
Keisha is currently working with Dr Larisa Corda and liaising with MP Alec Shelbrooke to bring greater awareness for endometriosis. They have already participated in two Parliament workplace debates in 2019 with another upcoming to try and shed light on how difficult it is for women with the condition to work. Keisha explains, 'We've been working with the government to put in place training for the DWP (the Department for Work and Pensions) to make sure that there is a the correct level of training in all workplaces. They need to understand that endometriosis is a disability and it impacts people's quality of life.'
Grace, 30, from London, who also has endometriosis ‘absolutely supports' the idea of menstral leave. She explains, 'I was only diagnosed in October after a long-awaited surgery. For years I would go into the office completely dosed up on co-codamol, after a night of no sleep, cold sweats, throwing up and almost fainting from period pain.’
The web editor and freelance writer adds, 'I had mostly male bosses and they simply did not understand and it was too embarrassing to mention. Even with a female manager I felt I had to lie and had multiple fake stomach bugs and migraines because it just isn’t taken seriously. But anyone with endometriosis or heavy painful periods will attest to how debilitating it is. It’s an indescribable pain and to expect women to work through it - even from home - is cruel.’
What is clear is that more needs to be done to support women in the workplace - employers need to be educated on the crippling effects periods can have for many of their employees. Menstrual leave would be a welcome concept for many.
Commenting on the news, Emma Cox, CEO of Endometriosis UK, says, 'It’s good to see menstrual wellbeing being discussed at Government level in Spain. We need to challenge the historic squeamishness and silence around menstrual health and have more open conversations on this issue.
'Anyone experiencing pain which means they need to be absent from work should expect to be listened to, believed, and receive support which is appropriate to the type and severity of symptoms they experience. This would be the case with any other condition, so why do employers and Government often fail to treat endometriosis and menstrual health conditions in the same way?
'While this measure is well-meaning, a blanket policy risks downplaying the seriousness of symptoms that some of those with menstrual conditions such as endometriosis, heavy menstrual bleeding and dysmenorrhea (severe period pain) may experience. Rather than generic menstrual leave, we want endometriosis recognised for the chronic condition it is, deserving of the same support as any other illness.'