Women’s Health in the Workplace: Time for a New Approach? WORDS: Clare-Louise Knox See Her Thrive
When embarking on a journey to find out about women’s experiences of reproductive and menstrual health issues in the workplace, I didn’t expect to discover such a shocking state of affairs: “I was given a disciplinary by my Manager for missing a shift, after I’d taken an overdose because of my health condition”, Emma explained, as she told me about her experience of working with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a menstrual related condition which affects around 1 in 20 women. “My employer has commenced ill health proceedings against me and there is a real chance I will lose my job due to my illness” – the words of another woman, Amanda, living with Endometriosis, a condition affecting 1 in 10 women. The narrative became clear very quickly; a large proportion of women are affected by invisible menstrual and reproductive health problems; symptoms associated with these conditions are having a significant impact on women in the workplace; stigma and embarrassment are preventing women from seeking help at work, with many adopting negative coping strategies as an alternative to disclosure; employers are not yet equipped with the knowledge, skills or confidence to effectively manage and support women’s health in the workplace; as a result, talented women are leaving the workforce through voluntary and involuntary means.
What we often fail to recognise in organisations, is that women have distinct needs due to their biology and reproductive life course, which for some, can present a range of unique physical and mental health challenges. According to Public Health England (2018), at least a third of women in England are suffering from severe reproductive health problems, including Endometriosis, infertility and the Menopause. Many of these conditions, while physical by definition, also have psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Throw in an additional layer of complexity, whereby symptoms may be cyclical in nature. This means they reoccur frequently (often monthly in-sync with the menstrual cycle). Yet, despite the fact that women make up around half of the UK workforce, female health issues are often ignored or dismissed in the workplace. Trigger-based absence policies, which are common in many organisations, are just one of the challenges for women with reproductive and menstrual health problems. If we think about a disorder such as Endometriosis (a medical condition where the lining of the uterus grows in other places) it may be impossible for an employee to get