What’s next for Women’s Health at work?


The fact that employers can now be sued for disability discrimination if they fail to provide “reasonable adjustments” for menopausal employees, is welcome news, according to some women’s health experts.

“The message this sends is that governments are taking women’s wellbeing at work seriously,” says Trudi Roscouet, Founder of consultancy Vitality 40 Plus, of the new guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Culture change in women’s health at work

In her opinion, though, legislation isn’t necessarily required to instigate the revolution needed in women’s health, but policies are:

“Some campaigners like Carolyn Harris MP [co-chairperson of the Menopause Task Force in the UK] have fought in the past for menopause to be a protected characteristic, for example, but my personal view is that female health conditions don’t need to be; not in today’s world, where we have so many options. I don’t believe we need legislation but I believe policies have a place because we need this ‘drop down’ approach from the top. It’s about bringing women’s health into the culture and creating ongoing learning and support.”

But, while the government’s new guidance might show a welcome willingness to acknowledge that menopausal women need more support to thrive at work, many are wary of the narrative now emerging around women’s health – namely the fact that a natural life stage of a woman’s life, menopause, is now being seen as a “disability”.

Worry about labelling menopause a ‘disability’

It could, unwittingly, make women of peri/menopausal age less attractive to employers, at a time in life where it is harder for them to find employment typically anyway, and when many are reportedly leaving jobs due to lack of support. 

Almost a quarter (23%) of working women, for example, have considered quitting due to menopause or menstrual symptoms at work, according to research by Simplyhealth, published in November. The same survey found that almost 90% said they wanted their employer to be more supportive when it came to women’s health.

Bupa’s own internal research revealed that over 900,000 women had left work due to symptoms of menopause, which is why its health clinics team launched the ‘Bupa Menopause Plan’, which it introduced free to all its employees.

It’s also recently launched its ‘Period Plan’, also free to all its colleagues, to support those with heavy and painful periods after its Bupa Wellbeing Index found that 16.7million sick days are taken annually due to symptoms linked to periods. Like many other companies, Bupa has predominantly focused first on menopause, then menstruation.

Guidance could paint women as high maintenance

While recognising the struggle of some working women’s experiences is obviously compassionate and necessary, some commentators worry that focusing on the deblitating nature of some conditions could ultimately work against female employers. As business analyst Angela Burger points out in a LinkedIn post garnering views on the new guidance:

“This [the new guidance which describes menopause as a disability] paints women as very high maintenance and costly to maintain. A move that may be doing more damage than good. If I had to choose to employ a man who is providing for his family or a 45 year old woman who might sue me if I ask her to do some urgent overtime because she’s getting hot flushes…well, not a difficult choice really.”

(This issue was also touched on in this Peppy webinar).

And it’s not just menopause….

And it’s not just menopause where this new narrative is potentially unwittingly damaging to female workers and gender equality. While the world of work has made great progress talking about women’s health much more openly in the workplace than ever before, there’s a growing danger that women’s bodies are increasingly associated with being “problematic” or “difficult” at work, as other conditions gain awareness too. 

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For instance, many organisations are now also openly discussing a raft of other female experiences and conditions, such as menstruation, polycystic ovarian syndrome and premature ovarian insufficiency – all of which can be hugely traumatic for those women whose experiences are extreme and their worklife is affected.

Hormonal stereotype

Women’s Health consultant Amy McKeown explains why this approach could be counterproductive:

“Will it lead to more problems and discrimination to women who may be seen as needing more support than men? Adding to the ‘hormonal’ stereotype that already exists? Or are we focusing narrowly on perceived issues and problems rather than taking a broader approach? Making this about the negatives?”

So, if you’re an employer reading this that wants to embrace and support women and their wellbeing so they can thrive, what’s the best way forward? Is it ‘wrong’ to focus in on specific conditions?

Knowledge is power

Of course, knowledge is power and the recent workplace focus on women’s health – menopause and menstruation in particular-  is undoubtedly positive. However, what many experts argue now needs to happen is that employers take a wider view, to which McKeown alludes. She adds, too, that what is happening in women’s health currently reminds her of the start of the mental health revolution and a similar evolution is required in women’s health.

Mental Health, too, initially focused on “a few specific areas” and “a blurring of boundaries between natural health states and phenomenon, illness and dysfunction”, she argues, before it settled on a more balanced ground. Now there’s wide recognition that everyone is on the mental health spectrum, and mental health fluctuates in us all according to age and stage, with some workers in the minority experiencing extremes.

Sandrine Rivoal Pluviaux, People, Safety & Wellbeing Advisor at housing association L&Q, describes what’s now needed in women’s health as a “whole-life approach to supporting women’s changing health needs as they age”, rather than cherry picking various high profile conditions.

Flexible support

She adds: 

“We have to start the conversation about it and address the particular hurdles that women face in the workplace such as menstrual cycle, menopause, fertility, osteoporosis, endometriosis… but not only. It is imperative employers understand and engage with the health changes that women go through during their working lives and create and deliver flexible support that works for all generations.”

Heidi Yule, Head of Development, Endometriosis UK, agrees saying the best “starting point” is to focus on “workplace culture”, adding that awareness-raising continues to be paramount in “breaking down taboos” so more women feel comfortable talking to their employers about their health.

In a similar vein, just as employers shouldn’t focus on one or two age-specific conditions, neither should they focus on one box-ticking exercise like creating a policy, or one event, like International Women’s Day, to keep the conversation going. More needs to be done to truly embed women’s health into the wider wellbeing at work strategy (feature on practical ways to do this coming soon!).

Not a tick box 

Another contributor on LinkedIn discussing this issue says that her experience of support for women going through (peri)menopause has been “pitiful” and merely “a box ticking exercise that merely consists of sending out a couple of website links from HR that are no more meaningful than a search my primary school aged son could have done with his eyes shut”.

Roscouet has experienced this tick box mentality first hand in her role as a menopause consultant and is calling for employers to play more of a role in educating the workforce about women’s health – not just on International Women’s Day – but all year round.

She says:

“Communications channels have got to remain open and consistent. It can’t just be ‘oh we’ve done training’.  We still have some real challenges to overcome around misogyny. Corporates must have an open door policy. They must play a role in educating their workforce and tackling boundaries so people can talk about all these issues.”

We’ll be honing in on this topic at The Watercooler Event during the panel session on 24th April: “What’s on the agenda with women’s health and wellbeing – from endometriosis to menopause”. This includes input from Cathy Earnshaw-Balding, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging , GXO; Helen Tomlinson, Government Menopause Employment Champion; Maurice O’Connor, Wellbeing Manager, British Airways; Dr Samantha Wild, Women’s Health Clinical Lead, BUPA and will be ably Chaired by Trudi Roscouet, Founder of Vitality 40 Plus. You can find out more and register to attend here.

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