Supporting Women in the Workplace - an Employer's Guide to Sickness & Absence Related to Reproductive Health

How do you support female employees with reproductive health concerns? Can they be confident and comfortable discussing their health concerns when they’ve had time off sick for ‘women’s problems’? Read on for See Her Thrive’s guide to supporting your female employees. 

Every company or organisation will have an absence or sickness policy in place. After all, it’s the law, and as an employer or manager you have a duty of care towards your team. What companies do not tend to have in place however is a system of support, especially important for employees who have experienced or are experiencing symptoms or illness that require additional understanding or sensitivity – such as mental health issues or women’s reproductive health problems. 

Recently, a lot of work has gone into making employers more understanding of mental health and associated conditions. With World Mental Health Day being observed on October 10th, this recognition and enhanced empathy is wholly positive and marks a huge stride forward in our workplace policies and procedures. 

But what about women’s reproductive health? How sensitively and compassionately are employers and organisations treating something that affects every single woman at some stage or another of their life? Can you, as an employer or line manager, confidently say that a female employee would be comfortable discussing their illness, pain or anxiety related to their reproductive health with you? Do you understand the impact that a woman’s reproductive health can have on her work? 

As a woman, can you sit down with your manager and explain why symptoms associated with menopause, endometriosis or any other reproductive system-related condition are causing you to take time off sick? 

See Her Thrive is focused on women’s wellbeing in the workplace and making sure that no woman is disadvantaged at work or in her career because of her reproductive health. It’s time to eliminate the stigma and embarrassment surrounding reproductive health and instead offer practical, cost effective ways to ensure your female employees feel supported during times of ill health. 

What is ‘women’s reproductive health’? 

Female reproductive health is an umbrella term for issues that can affect women every day at every age. It is broadly associated with menstrual, menopausal, fertility and pregnancy related conditions. It can cause a range of symptoms, both physical and mental, and can severely impact a woman’s capacity to work or her performance. 

Symptoms can result in employee absence for the short or long term. However, many women are embarrassed to discuss their conditions with employers or managers and are concerned that their health problems could adversely affect their career trajectory. 

Research has found that 1 in 4 women experiencing menopause symptoms have considered leaving work altogether, whilst other women feel their reproductive health issues would be dismissed as ‘women’s issues’. 

With women making up approximately half the UK workforce, it is vital that employers, companies and organisations reframe their understanding of women’s health and reduce the stigma around reproductive health. 

What you can do to support women experiencing reproductive health issues?

Sickness and absence policies should (ideally) be clearly set out for every organisation. When an employee calls in sick, a manager can reasonably ask the cause of absence, the expected date of return and request contact details. 

Often employees can self-certify for up to seven days of illness and thereafter they may be required to obtain a doctor’s note. 

Where a female employee cites ‘women’s problems’ – this should be treated sensitively and appropriately by her line manager or the HR professional handling the absence. 

Other ways to support women experiencing such problems include: 

  •  Be sensitive to the fact that a female employee may not feel comfortable discussing personal issues with you as her senior 

  • Be professional, do not ask probing questions or ask for intimate details 

  • Be mindful to use appropriate language and avoid negative terms such as ‘women’s issues’, ‘time of the month’ or ‘hormonal’

  • Ask the employee what she would like colleagues to be told whilst she is away 

  • Maintain appropriate contact with the employee but try to make each conversation positive rather than applying pressure to return to work

 While it is important to follow company protocol, it is also essential to be human and to make the employee feel as comfortable as possible. 

Long-term absence due to reproductive health problems 

In some cases, female reproductive health can cause severe pain and discomfort and/or mental anguish which can last for prolonged periods. Some situations may require emergency care, whilst others may result in ongoing treatment. In each case, after a long period of absence, it is important to support the employee to make a smooth return to work. This could include: 

  • Planning a phased return to work

  • Setting up a discussion or interview with Occupational Health prior to the return date

  • Providing the employee with reassurance and privacy

Dealing with absence caused by women’s reproductive health is not about giving women ‘special’ treatment or creating a new set of policies and procedures. It is instead about acknowledging and empathising with a huge raft of mental and physical problems that affect women alone and that often come with a stigma. It’s about not trivialising very real and – sometimes – very serious conditions that impact women due to their reproductive health. 

 For more advice or for learning and development around women’s reproductive health in the workplace, please contact hello@seeherthrive.com.