Are you aware that 1 in 10 of the women and AFAB individuals you work with are living with Endometriosis? Another 1 in 10 probably have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. 1 in 20 of your female colleagues are likely to be grappling with PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) while another 3 in 10 are battling Fibroids. In fact, it may be that you are a woman living with one (or several) of these conditions. If that is the case, you will probably relate to what comes next.
Every single day, millions of women cope with reproductive and genealogical health conditions at work, including those previously mentioned, as well as many others. The use of the word cope is absolutely deliberate in this case. In my research as a Business Psychologist, I’ve been shocked to find that many women ‘shut up and put up’ with the monthly anguish caused by these disorders, regardless of the physical and emotional pain they may be experiencing. It goes without saying, that these conditions can make work particularly difficult for a number of reasons. In some cases, this is extreme. Take PMDD for example, some of the psychological symptoms include: depression, thoughts of suicide and panic attacks. Sadly, 15% of women with the disorder will actually attempt suicide in their lifetime (IAPMD). Yet, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about PMDD in your workplace? Had you even heard of it before reading this post?
A large majority of women are afraid to discuss these issues at work. Some women refer to the societal taboo and stigma surrounding periods and menstrual health; others talk about a potential lack of empathy and understanding from their manager; many are afraid that they will lose their job; and a significant proportion cite fear of being perceived as weak or incompetent as a reason for not seeking support. I have frequently heard of women crying in the toilet, locking themselves away in their office for fear of saying the wrong thing, having panic attacks on the way to work due to unbearable anxiety, being put on capability measures as a result of menstrual related absence, leaving organisations due to lack of support…the list goes on. It is probably worth mentioning that on a few (rare) occasions, I have heard stories of helpful, empathetic employers. But these are very few and far between.
Failure to address women’s health in the workplace is likely to result in many more talented women leaving the workforce, as ‘shutting up and putting’ begins to take its toll. So, what can be done?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Create a culture of open dialogue around female-related health:
- Nominate a champion or ambassador for female health in your organisation and communicate this to the whole workforce
- Give employees the opportunity to meet with others to share and discuss their health concerns in the form of a regular ‘meet up’
- Recognise and celebrate women’s health at relevant points in the year e.g. International Women’s Day
- Select a women’s health cause as your organisation’s nominated charity
- Provide training on ‘how to have difficult conversations’ in the workplace
- Encourage staff (particularly leaders and managers) to share their experiences and personal challenges
2. Raise awareness of women’s health in the workplace:
- Provide workplace training on female-related health conditions- this is particularly important for Managers and HR professionals in order to equip them with the knowledge and skills to support employees
- Invite guest speakers to deliver talks, presentations or workshops to staff
- Provide coverage of women’s health conditions in internal communications e.g. newsletters
- Introduce a six week ‘women’s health’ initiative, with a different focus each week
3. Implement supportive policies and practices:
- Introduce a Women’s Health policy
- Treat each case individually - A one size fits all approach is not appropriate or effective for these conditions
- Evaluate your current absence policy – does it discriminate against women with reproductive and genealogical health conditions who may face regular/frequent absence from work?
- Be clear on how you will support and manage employees with reproductive or genealogical health conditions – uncertainty and ambiguity around ‘what happens next?’ can exacerbate anxiety for employees
- Provide opportunities for flexible working, including working from home, flexi-time and hot-desking
- Give employees autonomy over diary/task management – many women living with these conditions organise their time and workload based on how they are likely to be feeling at certain times in the month - They know this better than anyone
- Implement a return to work programme to support women after absence – this may be due to ongoing health concerns or in some cases, surgery
- Ensure staff have access to quiet work spaces
4. Provide targeted support:
- Provide staff with access to regular, face-to-face coaching, CBT or counselling from someone outside of the organisation – safe space to talk is very important
- Introduce self-esteem classes/workshops specifically for women, as these conditions can have a huge impact on self-confidence
- Set up a women’s health support or focus group
- Promote external organisations such as IAPMD, Vicious Cycle, Cycsters, Endometriosis UK and Women’s Health Concern – most of these provide downloadable resources which can be used in the workplace
- Provide access to Yoga/Pilates/mediation & relaxation classes
To learn more about women’s health at work and to find out how I can support your organisation, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org