More women are working than ever before. According to figures from the ONS, 72 per cent of women between the ages of 16 and 64 are in employment, a 52 per cent increase from 1971. And with increasing life expectancy and the UK’s retirement age set to reach 67 by 2028, more women are staying in work for longer. In fact, a quarter (25 per cent) of retirees return to the workforce at some point.
So, with such a large proportion of the world’s workforce made up by women, of all ages, why are topics around female health considered taboo? Menstruation, pregnancy, post-natal depression and the menopause (to list a few) are still highly stigmatised, despite millions of women saying that these issues have a negative effect their working life.
And it is costing UK business a lot of money. Approximately 11 million women have taken long-term health breaks during their working lives, and 3 million have left their place of work due to female health issues.
With such a large proportion of women making up the workforce, how can businesses support them to combat the stigma and prevent it from negatively impacting their careers?
Business leaders can show support to their female co-workers by educating themselves and their teams on the conditions, signs and symptoms of various health issues. Women’s biology is run on hormones, so during stages such as menstruation, pregnancy or menopause, women can experience various symptoms such as memory loss, anxiety, headaches, and extreme changes in temperature.
Recently, financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown introduced a menstruation and menopause policy. This aimed to raise awareness and understanding around the topics and encourage workplaces to have open conversations about experiences. The policy also offers flexible working adjustments, shower facilities and free sanitary products.
Introducing training programmes, organising awareness days and running internal campaigns are great ways to not only break down barriers but normalise the issues and show genuine allyship.
Talk about it
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), almost a third of women have taken sick leave due to hot flushes, brain fog, emotional upheaval, anxiety, fatigue, migraines and more - but only 25 per cent told their manager the real reason why.
Without widespread confidence in talking openly about the real things that women are experiencing, the issue remains brushed under the carpet. Business leaders, senior members of staff and HR departments should equip themselves with the appropriate knowledge and use it to be an approachable person to confide in.
It is worth asking: why is a cold or flu deemed worthy of taking a day off, but extreme fatigue, headaches and hot flushes aren’t? Employers must normalise these conversations and ensure any sick leave due to female reasons are treated in the same way as any other sickness.
All women will experience female health issues such as menstruation and menopause at some point in their lives. Being forced to adapt symptoms around inflexible work structures can be too difficult for some, and in some cases can mean they miss out on promotions and progression opportunities.
Unison says that menopause is a workplace issue, and companies should be urged to consider what reasonable adjustments they can make for their staff to allow them to work comfortably and confidently.
Adjustments such as offering flexible working hours or hybrid remote working models, alternated workloads adapted to menstruation cycles, the providing of sufficient sanitary products and shower facilities, mental health support, adequate ventilation and appropriately designed work uniforms are all ways to support female employees’ wishes to do their jobs effectively.
With 51 per cent of the UK’s workforce female, women’s health should not be disregarded or ignored. This is an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate, not only to their current female employees but to potential female candidates, that theirs is a company that cares about addressing the issues faced by women every day and wants to work towards a more inclusive working environment which benefits all.