Breaking taboos: Raising awareness of women’s health at work

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lizzie Buxton

16th June 2022

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In March 2021 the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) launched a Call for Evidence to inform the first ever government-led Women’s Health Strategy for England. Nearly 10,000 people in England got in touch.

The results highlighted priority areas for action and further research, including:

  • gynaecological conditions (63%)
  • fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support (55%)
  • the menopause (48%)
  • menstrual health (47%)
  • mental health (39%)

Through the Call for Evidence, the Government heard that health conditions and disabilities can impact women’s experience in the workplace, and can increase women’s stress levels and impact their mental health and productivity. To de-stigmatise women’s health conditions and their impact in the workplace, many respondents called on employers to do more to encourage and facilitate open discussions between line managers and colleagues.

Another theme highlighted the importance of raising awareness and understanding of women’s health in the workplace, as well as of normalising discussions surrounding this topic. Organisations highlighted the need for more conversation on taboo topics including periods, and increased dialogue on the impact of the menopause at work to ensure that women can remain productive and supported.

Many examples of good practice, whereby employers have worked with employees and external experts to introduce new workplace policies and other support, and have encouraged open conversations in the workplace, were also shared.

Recommendations from respondents, to the government and employers, which would provide better support to women in the workplace included:

  • continuing to promote flexible working arrangements and facilitating access to occupational health services to enable women to better manage their health needs and communicate this to their managers;
  • creating new policies to better support women in work, such as paid leave and counselling for miscarriage and baby loss, and reasonable adjustments for women who are going through the menopause, or living with painful gynaecological conditions;
  • providing better support for women seeking to re-enter the workplace or progress their careers after maternity leave, and while living with or recovering from female health conditions;
  • providing leave for women’s health appointments and treatment;
  • expanding paid leave categories to properly recognise the time needed to attend certain appointments for female-health conditions, and to recover from female reproductive surgery (such as a hysterectomy);
  • providing an extra day of paid leave a month for women who suffer from painful, heavy periods. Some also called for better bathroom facilities and access to sanitary products;
  • ensuring better implementation of existing workplace policies including the use of occupational health services and reasonable adjustments.

Some women’s health conditions may affect performance and productivity

In 2020, a record of around 16 million women were in employment in the UK.

As women face additional health matters to their male counterparts, more recognition is needed surrounding the impact this may have on their general health and wellbeing in work.

Some common, but chronic gynaecological and reproductive health conditions are under-recognised and could be holding back women’s productivity and damaging their careers. These may include:

How can employers support women’s health issues at work?

Manager Training

A lack of line manager awareness of these issues is a huge barrier to effective management. More training for line managers, to help understand the symptoms and the impact on work, could help make more positive outcomes for all. Having a supportive line manager, who understands that time off might be required, is also essential and will help minimise the impact on risks to work and ensure that work does not worsen an already stressful time.

Consideration of flexible working requests

It is really important that women’s health conditions are recognised in decisions around flexible working requests to allow for self-management of symptoms, and in sickness absence policies and processes. If you need support with creating or updating your policies, our expert consultants can help.

Make reasonable adjustments

Adjustments such as additional breaks when required, ad hoc home working, time off, temporary reduction in hours, can all be crucial for employee retention as it will allow women to have the time and space to manage their symptoms around their workload.  Compassionate leave may also be appropriate in some circumstances.

Remove the stigma 

There are clear issues surrounding disclosure in the workplace and fears around stigma, particularly where there is a male line manager who may be entirely unfamiliar with the conditions. Employers could provide a pathway for female employees to access confidential work support. Non-disclosure of health conditions may lead to incidents being mismanaged, or women not seeking support for their health condition, when with adjustments, they might be more productive or even be able to remain in work.

Improving recognition in policies and processes

Improving the recognition of women’s reproductive and gynaecological health in workplace policies and processes, will not only provide assurances to women that they can speak openly about their symptoms with managers and employers, but it will also provide managers with the tools to support them.

If your managers would benefit from training on how to support employees, or you’d like support with your policies or processes, please get in touch.

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