Why employers need to wake up on women’s health

women's health in the workplace

For many years, health concerns specific to women have been overlooked by employers. There has been little awareness of the issues and impacts that women’s health concerns might bring to staff, the wider workforce, and business as a whole. But with numerous large industries employing vast female workforces, employers need to be proactive and supportive on women’s health in the workplace.

Without awareness and proper handling of women’s wellbeing, employers risk reduced productivity. In some sectors, employers could even face costly gaps in the workforce if employees leave due to lack of support with health. This is of particular concern for sectors such as health and social work, where 78% of roles are held by women, and education, which has a 70%-female staff.

Employers have a duty of care for the women who work for them.

With 65% of women uncomfortable with discussing their health in the workplace, it is time for businesses and organisations to improve matters.

Women in the workplace: the current situation

Women make up a significant proportion of the workforce. In 2021 15.5 million women were employed in the UK labour force.

Many sectors and occupation types are dominated by women, including administrative and clerical, health and social care, education, wholesale and retail roles. There are large industries with vast or predominantly female workforces. The include health and social work (accounting for 21% of all jobs held by women as of September 2021), the wholesale and retail trade (13%) and education (12%). Almost 4 million women work in professional services, as engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants and lawyers.

For many businesses and sectors in the UK, supporting women’s health is essential for productivity. With women providing so many essential roles, it is vital that employers are able to support their needs.

Despite existing legislation that gives employers a duty of care for workers, the UK government recognises that there is more to be done for women’s health. Work has begun on improving women’s health through a public consultation in 2021.

Why women’s health matters for employers

Women have complex and varying health concerns throughout their life including, but not limited to, fertility, pregnancy, and menopause. Many women will experience miscarriage or baby loss, and 1 in 7 will develop breast cancer.

At these times, and many more, good support from employers can mean the difference between women feeling able to continue in work, and having no choice but to leave their roles.

Employers need to ensure female workers have choices, are treated with compassion, and are able to continue working wherever possible if they want to protect their business.

Of those who said a health condition or disability had impacted their experience in the workplace (62%), more than 3 in 4 said it had increased their stress levels (76%) and 2 in 3 said it had impacted their mental health (67%). We also found that:
– 26% said it impacted their earnings
– 25% said it affected their opportunities for promotion
– 22% said it meant they stopped work earlier than they had planned

Results of the Women’s Health Let’s Talk About It Survey – UK Government

It is also important to note that women in the UK take the most responsibility for planning childcare, the logistics of which can cause significant strain. Women who work shifts can experience higher levels of stress in making childcare arrangements because of the additional complications of a varying work pattern.

Such difficulties can even cause some women to leave the workplace, taking valuable skills and experience with them. Wherever women are leaving the workforce, talent drains incur significant costs for employers as they are forced to look for new hires. While women who feel unsupported and ill-treated due to their gender may well share their feelings on the topic among friends or on social media. This is not good for any organisation’s employer reputation.

The government’s research found that only 11% of women are aware of policies and protections by their current or previous workplace regarding domestic abuse. There is an urgent need to combat taboos and improve support for women experiencing domestic violence.

The UK government recognises the huge need for improvements around women’s health and the need for better support in the workplace.

The government is due to publish a Women’s Health Strategy, designed to tackle the issues, later in 2022.

Breaking taboos on women’s health

The way that employers support women (and their partners) through health issues can make a significant difference to staff engagement, absence levels and retention. Productivity can suffer, not just for an individual, but across an entire business.

Around 1 in 3 respondents said women feel comfortable talking about health issues in their workplace

Results of the Women’s Health Let’s Talk About It Survey – UK Government

Women’s health issues are often invalidated or underappreciated in workplace environments. Women can find it difficult to raise or discuss issues around menstruation, fertility or the menopause because of embarrassment. Line managers – especially those who are male – may avoid broaching the subjects through similar embarrassment, or because they feel ill-equipped for the conversation.

Until these conversations can be started, it will be very difficult for employers to make improvements – either for staff, or for the performance of their business.

Workplace engagement after an absence

When workers are not well-supported after an absence, they may have lower levels of engagement with their work. Although this can affect any member of staff, it is particularly relevant to women, who are more likely to take several months off during maternity leave. A third of HR professionals say they don’t know what discussions to have before or after maternity leave. They must make improvements to prevent women’s health management impacting staff retention, which is costly for the company. Fortunately, help is at hand. Organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed offer training for employers to support women in the workplace.

Of course, there are other reasons for absence too. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, and the overwhelming majority of cases occur in women. Supporting all employees to return to work after ill health and medical treatment is crucial for workforce wellbeing.

Menopause: a hot topic for employers

By 2030, 1 in 3 UK workers will be over 50. The average menopause age is 51. the menopause will affect a higher proportion of staff than ever before.

The issues around managing female employee health, with a menopause study bringing issues of female employee health challenges to the national stage, have become high-profile topics in recent months. Staff who are supported to stay well during and after the menopause can thrive at work, benefitting the entire organisation.

Women’s health impacts not just the individuals, but the whole workforce. When women’s health is supported, they, their partners and the company all benefit.

What employers can do to support women

There are many actions that employers can take to support women’s health in the workplace. These include:

  • Supporting managers: Providing appropriate training, information, and tools to help them raise and discuss issues. Outlining clear workflows and processes for action and referrals on women’s health
  • Incorporating women’s health into proactive employee health and wellbeing strategies
  • Encourage open communications to reduce taboos and stigma. Discussing wellbeing regularly, for example during appraisals, helps to normalise conversations and make them more inclusive
  • Training for managers in how to discuss female health topics more openly and regularly
  • Familiarising line managers with available resources for women’s health via Employee Assistance Programmes or corporate healthcare schemes. Make it easy for managers to refer staff who need extra support
  • Taking part in health campaigns (e.g. Women’s Health Week, Breast Cancer Month)
  • Investigating resources for the workplace that may help staff find the support they need via organisations such as:
  • Consulting with staff and unions when making changes, to gain support for changes designed to help health and wellbeing.
  • Wise up on priority topics highlighted by the Department for Health and Social Care in their 2021 research/consultation, particularly:
    • gynaecological conditions
    • fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support
    • the menopause
    • menstrual health
    • mental health
    • the health impacts of violence against women and girls

Empactis is designed to help managers hold every kind of health and absence conversation with workers, and provide them with the information they need at the time they need it. The platform also makes referrals for further help through OH schemes and Employee Assistance Programmes easier to manage. Learn more about Empactis Health Manager.