Top tips on supporting women’s health in the workplace
The health requirements of women and men are different. Yet, historically, this fact has been overlooked and ignored in the workplace. This has led to women choosing to leave their employer, shift to part-time hours, turn down promotion opportunities or retire early. All of these actions are at a detriment to employers, who are losing talent. Fortunately, attitudes around women’s health issues are beginning to change.
Although 53% of the delegates who attended REBA’s recent Women’s Health in the Workplace breakfast in association with AXA PPP Healthcare did not have a specific women’s health strategy in place, 25% did have one and a further 14% planned to introduce one in the next six months.
Some of the biggest challenges highlighted by the attendees were menopause (26%), gender pay gap implications (22%) and women’s mental health, including post-natal depression and peri-menopausal anxiety (19%). Other issues flagged included child birth and parental support, as well as fertility and conception.
Small change big difference
Employers don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to women’s health strategies. Small workplace interventions can make a big difference to women’s experiences, helping them to feel confident and safe in the workplace.
Often, employers just need to ensure that their policies are inclusive of all and that they encourage an open culture that allows for discussions about all health issues, regardless of gender.
Conversely, specific women’s health policies, such as menopause leave, although well intentioned, can have the opposite effect by trying to get rid of the problem rather than making workplace adjustments to meet employees’ needs. Sally King, founder and research director of Menstrual Matters, explains that employers need to “make the workplace fit for employees rather than reinforcing the idea that women are different or other”.
Key to ensuring that barriers around women’s health are broken down is to encourage conversations and expand employees’ and, in particular, line managers’ awareness. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that this is not just an issue for women. Men too want and need to understand what requirements women have, whether in their professional lives as line managers or at home as sons, partners or brothers.
To help create open cultures where talking about women’s health is normalised, organisations including Santander and Norton Rose Fulbright, have started to run sessions on women’s health. These have included information on symptoms and treatments, fertility, menopause, midlife health concerns – for both men and women – and the impact these issues can have on relationships.
Creating a workplace culture that enables women to feel supported and safe to talk about their health, and to understand that they are not alone is crucial. It also gives managers the confidence to ask if everything is ok.
There are several practical steps that employers can consider to help support women’s health in the workplace:
- create a dedicated breastfeeding room for new mothers
- if a uniform is worn, consider whether it is practical and comfortable for women
- repurpose the first aid room to give women a place to go if they’re experiencing symptoms and need time out
- health assessments could include gender-specific tests
- encourage senior leaders to share their own stories advocating women’s health
- offer flexible working
- survey female employees to better understand what workplace interventions would best support them
- provide access to information about symptoms and treatments, perhaps utilising content from the employee assistance programme.
Some companies are doing even more to support women’s health. Shefali Gera, head of diversity & inclusion and wellness EMEA at Goldman Sachs, who spoke at the breakfast, outlined the benefits that they have recently introduced to support families.
Not only has the organisation introduced gender parity across its parental leave policies, but they have also created a pathway to parenthood. Regardless of sexual orientation, perspective parents can have access to stipends to help cover the costs of adoption, egg retrieval, IVF, egg donation and surrogacy. This is applicable for employees and their partners.
They also offer a milk-shipping service for breastfeeding mothers and have an expectant parent co-ordinator to assist employees.
Although these types of interventions are not an option for most employers, it does illustrate the importance of inclusive, gender-neutral policies.
Women want to work
More often than not, women can feel that their health is a barrier to work. However, it is clear that, with the right guidance, support and adjustments, women can remain in the workplace for as long as they want.
The author is Dawn Lewis, content editor at REBA.
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