Looking Beyond Pregnant Workers and New Mothers with Women’s Health
The issue of women’s health in the workplace often conjures up thoughts around pregnant workers and new mothers and the inevitable risk assessment, then ends up with the inescapable debate about maternity leave, and the treatment of women returning to work after giving birth and how they can use keep in touch days to make sure they aren’t replaced or forgotten quicker than Neil in accounting at the office Christmas party.
Though this is an extremely important aspect of women’s health, particularly since 61% of women believe that maternity leave and childcare disrupt women’s opportunities to progress into managerial roles1, this is not the only element of women’s health that needs to be addressed in the workplace.
Let’s take a look at what workplaces might be missing when it comes to women’s health and how to begin moving in the right direction.
How women’s health impacts the workplace
Around 11 million women have taken long-term health breaks during their working lives, and 3 million have left their workplace due to female health issues2.
From menstruation to postnatal depression, women’s health issues are permeating the workplace, and when left unaddressed, have a negative impact on both the business and the employee.
With menopause, for example, almost a third of women have taken sick leave due to menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, brain fog, anxiety, fatigue, and migraines – yet only 25% told their manager the real reason why3.
The reason why it is so essential to broaden the discussion around women’s health beyond pregnant workers and new mothers is because nearly all women will experience female health issues at some point in their lives, most of which aren’t covered in workplace policy and general awareness the way pregnancy/maternity leave is.
This requires a level of understanding, compassion, and knowledge from business leaders, senior members of staff and HR.
In the same way that we know someone who has a cold should take time off, we should also know that a woman experiencing brain fog and fatigue should be able to take time off as well – it begins with normalising the discussion around all of women’s health.
Open conversations are necessary
Though well intentioned, women’s health-specific policies such as menopause leave may give the impression of brushing the issue under the rug rather than openly addressing it by making reasonable adjustments.
This includes the way in which women’s health is communicated.
When women’s health is discussed in the workplace, it can often be directed only at women, even though men may want and also need to understand more about women’s health issues.
Unlike with maternity leave and new mothers returning to work, the knowledge that the workplace has around issues such as endometriosis, menopause, postnatal depression, and perimenopausal anxiety is minimal unless open discussions start to happen.
There’s also the link to wider discussions around mental health, which can be an area of overlap with women’s health.
Stress, anxiety and depression are cited as the common conditions reported by women in the workplace, with contributors to these conditions including caring responsibilities, ageism and sexist perceptions in the workplace4.
Research has also indicated that unsympathetic colleagues and managers can prevent women from talking about the difficulties they are facing or getting support from colleagues5.
Verdict: understanding women’s health + a commitment to accommodating needs = a better workplace for everyone.
Effective workplace change relies on giving assurances to employees to raise their issues with their employer/managers, whilst also providing employers/managers with the tools and knowledge to support them. But the starting point for these has to be a commitment and desire to support the health of employees. Not for any tokenistic gesture but a willingness to be open and supportive, that has to be the starting point.
Whether a business opts for awareness days, training programmes, or internal campaigns, the first step is reducing the stigma and raising awareness of women’s health beyond the scope of pregnancy.
Continuing with discussions opens the door to making adjustments such as flexible working structures, hybrid working models, mental health support, and physical workspace changes such as better ventilation and quiet workspaces.
Such changes aren’t just beneficial to one demographic of the workforce. They create a psychologically safe environment that is more comfortable and productive for all employees due to an open culture.
These adjustments can also make a huge impact on how women can work and how comfortable they feel about their health, which in turn can promote a more inclusive environment.
With the impact of the pandemic, many women have struggled due to comprising 77% of the workforce at high risk of contracting Covid-196, which is why change is needed now more than ever.
With women making up such a large percentage of the workforce, it’s time for businesses to begin demonstrating their commitment to women’s health to their employees and potential candidates.
What are you waiting for?