Why We Need to Talk About Women’s Health
Birth control. Menopause. Endometriosis. Menstruation.
Only a few terms relating to women’s health, and often, enough to make people so uncomfortable that they avoid the conversation entirely.
Historically, women’s health has been treated as a hush-hush topic, from the inception of commercial menstrual care products that were initially a commercial failure due to squeamishness around the topic, to the reluctance to study (and disclose) the side effects of birth control.
Women’s health has been shaped by stigma
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America was originally founded as the American Birth Control League, by a woman called Margaret Sanger in 1921 Brooklyn, New York.
Having worked as an obstetrical nurse in the Lower East Side of New York City, Margaret saw first-hand the devastation caused by infant and maternal mortality, high fertility rates, poverty, and illegal abortions.
Thus, she opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916, before later founding the American Birth Control League, and was later arrested for distributing information around contraception, after an undercover policewoman had found her pamphlet on family planning.
Sanger’s argument was simple – in order for women to be equal in society and have healthier lives, they needed to be able to have control over when to bear children, which would prevent the, at the time, very common, back-alley abortions.
The key takeaway? Women’s health has always had to fight for a place in societal discussion.
Menopause in the workplace
Did you know that menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce?1
Probably not – yet, nearly 8 out of 10 menopausal women are in work, according to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine.
The embarrassment around the topic means that it often flies under the radar, even though 3 out of 4 women experience menopausal symptoms, with 1 in 4 experiencing serious symptoms.
These symptoms include: hot flushes, headaches, poor sleep, low mood, anxiety, lack of confidence, and poor concentration.
As an employer, aren’t these concerns that you would want to address to ensure your employees aren’t suffering in silence?
Perhaps it would be considered as more important if it were widely known that due to menopausal symptoms, 1 in 4 women consider leaving their jobs, and 72% of women in work say they feel unsupported2.
You don’t need to be an expert
One of the prevalent reasons why women often aren’t supported in the workplace when it comes to menopause is a lack of confidence in line managers around the topic.
Unlike maternity leave, which has clearly defined steps in the workplace, each woman’s experience with menopause will be different.
The best piece of advice? Understanding goes a long way.
Managers who understand the range of difficulties a woman might be facing at work during menopause can then implement guidance on the support that a company can offer.
It doesn’t have to be complex.
Seating arrangements could be changed so a female employee is closer to air conditioning, or small desk fans could be offered in order to combat hot flushes.
Another option is flexible working hours, so that women can comfortably take time to see their GP if they need to.
Education diminishes stigma
Part of the reason that the stigma and embarrassment around women’s health still thrives is because of a lack of awareness, understanding, and education.
Many of the areas of women’s health that are avoided in discussions are common:
- 1 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis (that makes it as common as diabetes)
- 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage
- Approximately 13 million women in the UK are either peri or post-menopausal
- 20% of women experience period pain severe enough to interfere with daily activities
- On average, women with endometriosis lose 11 hours of work each week due to reduced work performance
This barely scratches the surface of the multitude of barriers women face in day-to-day life and the workplace when it comes to their health, only made more difficult and distressing by the societal aversion of speaking about it.
How can it change?
Firstly, a huge barrier to de-stigmatising women’s health is language.
By avoiding terms relating to women’s health, we’re implying that it’s shameful and shouldn’t be discussed, which can be detrimental to women.
If women’s health isn’t discussed, it becomes harder for a woman to determine what is typical, or what may be a medical condition, or point of concern.
Bupa Health Clinics found that around 11 million women have taken long-term health breaks during their working lives, and 3 million have left work due to female health problems (more than 1 million of which were because of period-related issues).
A simple, yet often overlooked solution to some of these issues would be flexible and remote working opportunities, which would allow women the comfort of working from home on days where they feel unable to cope with the office, rather than having to resort to sick leave.
Training and awareness can also go a long way for all employees, by providing women with the self-care advice to manage their symptoms better, and other employees the ability to be supportive and aware.
Primarily, workplace culture needs to change before any meaningful shift can occur, as without a judgement-free, knowledgeable workplace environment, women won’t feel comfortable discussing their health, or seeking help.
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