We have come so far in addressing women’s roles in the workplace, but there is still scope to enhance our understanding of women’s unique health needs.
In all aspects of work and performance women and men have more or less equal capacity to perform. I think that has been clearly demonstrated in recent years. Much effort is being paid to addressing fair compensation and female leadership roles. There has also been tremendous improvement in supporting parents in the workplace and creating flexibility for new parents returning to work.
However, women do have unique health requirements (beyond pregnancy) that are often not supported in the workplace.
Women’s health needs can affect up to 50% of the workforce
According to the public service trade union Unison, women make up about half of the UK workforce and 65% of public sector employees. Unison believes that women’s health concerns and issues should be taken into account when designing sickness or flexibility arrangements.
As a practitioner who deals regularly with women’s hormonal health conditions, I often hear about the difficulties women face dealing with ‘unseen’ female health conditions at work. Conditions like endometriosis, menorrhagia (heavy periods) or fertility treatment can put some women in the uncomfortable position of requesting adjustments to manage their needs or even time off.
Menopause is another consideration for many women. It is not a disease, but a natural part of life. However, the transition can be complex and uncomfortable for some. Sleep interruption, anxiety, depression, and headaches are not uncommon symptoms and can impact quality of life for months or years. For some women, the disruption can creep into how they cope at work, impacting confidence.
I am often surprised at how many women do not realise that their health issues are a direct result of the transition into menopause. There is also a general reluctance from women to approach their managers to discuss hormone-related health needs.
The Reality of Women’s Health Needs
Women’s health is not a handicap. That is, it shouldn’t be. The problem is that our culture still dictates that female health concerns are often discussed in hushed tones or are seen as a gender weakness – sometimes by other women.
Women have periods. Women go through menopause. For some, those occurrences can be difficult – that is reality. It doesn’t mean female employees are less capable, they just need understanding and some flexibility to accommodate their needs. In the same way that a migraine can keep someone home from work, disrupted hormonal health can be debilitating for some women. However, the latter is more difficult to address in the work context.
Creating a Workplace Cultures that Support Women’s Health
We need to get over the squeamishness of addressing women’s health at work. Part of this is education – for women as well as men. I recall a heated argument in an office years ago when the younger female employees couldn’t understand why their older colleague requested sitting next to an open window in the middle of winter. The older colleague was too embarrassed to explain why she couldn’t concentrate without it and tensions eventually spilled over with HR having to intervene.
If we are serious about supporting women throughout their careers and, particularly during the pre-retirement years of 50-66, organisations have a duty to consider the unique requirements of female employees.
A good starting point might be to offer women’s health support and information in the same way as mental health and general wellbeing are addressed. Awareness and education are important to start opening up the conversation and reducing the stigma around women’s health.
Offering free sanitary products in bathrooms is not the solution (although it is a nice perk). Creating a culture where all employers and management are aware of women’s requirements is better.
Awareness really is key here. If managers are aware, then they will be more open to dealing with these issues. Not everyone needs to be an expert in female hormonal health, but simply understanding the potential impact on female employees is a great place to start.
From an economic perspective, workplaces need to do as much as possible to keep talented women engaged and productive.
Investing in educational workshops, coaching, support procedures and diversity & inclusion training can help to increase attraction and retention of female talent. And that will benefit us all.
First published in Ambition, Nov 2020