Women's health in the workplace: are you aware of the symptoms?

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Last year, we surveyed businesses across Lancashire to see why they were reluctant to address women's health in the workplace.  The results:

  • The stigma that still surrounds talking about periods and menopause
  • A lack of understanding about the symptoms of women's health issues
  • Ignorance around the impact that the symptoms have, not only on women but also on the business and the bottom line!
  • Fear of getting it wrong

In this article, we look at the second "why"...

Many decision-makers don't understand the symptoms of women's health 

Last year, we carried out a survey of employers in Lancashire who didn't have any support in place for women's health needs, to find out why it wasn't a priority and what was holding them back from investing in such a significant chunk of their workforce.  

Many respondents told us that they don't understand women's health or why it needs to be a specific 'project' within a workplace.

Today we'll deal with the first aspect of that; the symptoms themselves.

It's very hard to imaging the symptoms that many women are going through on a very regular basis if you haven't been through them yourself.   Men don't have periods, so are never going to be able to feel what having a difficult menstrual cycle feeling like.  

Women's who have healthy periods can struggle to empathise with those of us who do struggle.  And the same with menopause; men don't go through the same transition as we do and many women have effortless, symptomless transitions.  

So it can be impossible for some people to understand what we're going though, which leads to suspicion, anxiety and when it comes to work, women ringing in sick or even leaving jobs they're good at.

Here, we'll look at the main symptoms that my individual clinic clients report as the most impactful at work.  

Pain

I remember from the days of my worst pain how unlike any other pain this was.  

Strong painkillers don't touch it. I always say that we need to have more words for pain in our beautiful language - like the Inuit language celebrates all of the different types of snow there is.   

My pain is a "pulling" pain. Like someone has a old-fashioned iron coat hanger hooked around my ovaries and is steadily twisting and pulling down.  Not nice. I also got shooting, searing pain down my left leg, my hip and knee joints, my lower back and even, on occasion, a dull ache as fall up as my shoulder.   I have worked with clients who experience similar, but on a much deeper level - their pain meaning they don't sleep for days on end, can't move and even faint if they try.

One client a few years ago likened the pain she was in to "going through childbirth for two weeks of every month".  She had two children.

Let's be very clear here, pain is NOT part of a healthy menstrual cycle.  We're told it is.  We're told that our periods will hurt.  But actually this is a very unhelpful narrative that actively discourages women for seeking help with their symptoms.  

You may experience some twinges or cramping around ovulation or just at the early stage of your bleed but, in a healthy cycle, that's it.  

Fatigue

We all get tired but the chronic physical and emotional fatigue that comes with menstrual conditions and menopause can be crippling. Muscles feel like dead weights. The effort of thought sometimes is just too much. Creativity plummets.  And in many cases, there's nothing you can do except ride it out.  Sometimes you feel better after a quick nap, sometimes it takes days.  

Each person is different. But the common factor in every case of fatigue I've worked with is that it's not just being tired. It's like a combination of the worst hangover and worst jet lag together.  Not fun and not conducive to an overly productive day.

Flooding

As the name suggests, flooding is where we get very heavy menstrual bleeding, either as part of our period or as an unexpected event.  It typically seeps through clothes and also requires a change of period products every hour or even less.  

Many women don't experience flooding until they are approaching menopause and that can be incredibly concerning.  When we think of menopause, we think of our periods stopping and very few women talk about the face that, actually, their periods get heavier or more frequent before they stop altogether.  

For women with conditions like fibroids or adenomyosis, flooding can be a regular occurrence.  

Flooding impacts hugely on our ability to carry out routine tasks - not necessarily the flooding itself but the fear and anxiety that comes with it.  The worry that you're going to leave a stain on a chair, only ever feeling comfortable in thick, black trousers that will best mask the blood, feeling like you can't leave the sanctuary of a nearby toilet or a shower in case you need to wash yourself. 

Other significant symptoms

Brain fog

Is also a big one.  Forgetting words, walking into a room and having no idea why you're there, putting your car keys in the fridge; the stories we hear of women experiencing "brain fog" are endless and often made out to be quite funny.  But for many women it's not a laughing matter. Feeling like you're missing deadlines, forgetting meetings - living life on the brink of really messing up can cause huge anxiety, especially at work.  

Mood swings

Many women experience severe mood shifts as part of their natural menstrual cycle.  Conditions like PMDD see a level of hormone imbalance that means many women can barely recognise themselves.  Many women feel similar as they go through their menopause transition.  Anxiety, depression and a depleted resilience are all symptoms of women's health conditions or a difficult menopause.

Of course this is by no means a definitely list of the symptoms that many women are experiencing, but it highlights the issues that my clients feel impact them most at work.

Women, if you're struggling with any of these symptoms then please know you're not alone and please do seek support.  Employers, please know that there really are things that can be done at work to help us perform as if we didn't get any of these symptoms.

If you'd like to chat with me regarding implementing Women's Health support in your organisation or if you're struggling with your own menstrual health, then please do get in touch.

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