Women's health in the workplace: the impact 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 third "why"...

Many decision-makers don't understand the impact of women's health symptoms on their profits

As mercenary as that may sound, the bottom line is that not supporting the menstrual health needs of your teams will be having an impact on your bottom line.

In a 2021 survey of our individual clients:

  • 100 per cent of them reported taking avoidable sick days off work because their symptoms weren't supported at work
  • 100 per cent of them reported covering up the real reason they were off sick because they felt shame talking about struggling with their periods (more about this tomorrow)
  • 86 per cent reported leaving or considering leaving jobs were were happy in and good at because their period or menopause symptoms weren't being supported.

These are women whose symptoms are severe enough to be attending my clinic, so I recognise that it's not a true representation of all women. But given that around 70 per cent of working age women will be struggling with their menstrual health (including menopause), the impact is still significant. 

So why do women feel their only option is to ring in sick?

Physical Environment

If you're struggling with symptoms like flooding, unpredictable bleeding or hot sweats then the availability of toilet and showering facilities plays heavily on your mind.  We need to be confident that we can get to a toilet quickly, that we can change our period products regularly, that we can clean ourselves up if needed and that we can change our clothes.   

For many women, the pain or fatigue they are feeling means that they struggle to walk any distance or climb stairs.   For women working in environments where they are on their feet a lot or with physical roles, when they are feeling at their worst then the prospect of carrying out their physcial tasks can be too much. 

As I'm sure you can imagine, if the workplace doesn't mitigate the physical toileting issues with the flexibility to take some 'flexi time' off, reschedule hours, redistribute work, work from home etc then despite the fact that they are physically able to work, ringing in sick will feel like their only option.

Anxiety

Fear of bleeding through your trousers, fear that your hot sweats will make you a bit smelly, fear of the smell of your bleeding.  Fear that your pain will get worse and you won't be able to get home.  Fear that your concentration will be so bad you'll forget meetings or deadlines.  Fear that you forget words or say the wrong thing.  Fear that your IBS-type symptoms will kick in.  Fear that you will need to change your clothes, run out of period products, fall asleep at your desk, make a mistake... the list goes on.

Having a culture where issues like this are openly talked about massively reduces this anxiety.   If you're working somewhere that just doesn't talk about periods, where menopause is taboo, where there is no consideration given to your symptoms then this anxiety is very real.  And it's more that enough to make you feel like you need to be anywhere else but in that office.  

Reaction to doctors appointments 

When you're struggling with your menstrual cycles, fertility issues or menopause then taking time off for doctors appointments can be a lot more of a struggle than for others.  

If you've got a condition like cervical erosion, adenomyosis or Endometriosis then routine smear appointments can cause flare-ups.  I know from experience that this quick 10-minute procedure can lead to hours of pain, bloating and bleeding.   So rather than just "popping in" on your lunch break like other women, you know that you're going to need some time to recover afterwards. 

The diagnosis journey for these conditions is also a massively debilitating one, both physically and emotionally.  Scans that leave you with pain and bleeding, for example, again meaning that you can't simply take an hour away from work for the appointment.  The emotional toll of finding out the result and trying to get your head around the next steps.

Similarly if you're struggling with your fertility, whether you have underlying conditions or not, then the emotional and physical impact of these appointments cannot be understated.   

Failed IVF, pregnancy and baby loss are huge factors in our physical and emotional wellbeing that can so often be totally overlooked at work.

 "Well you're not pregnant any more so you revert back to the normal sickness policy - we'll need you back on Monday" was one client's feedback of how she'd been treated when she sadly lost her pregnancy.   The physical and emotional strain of this is incredible and work can certainly help or hinder us as we recover from this trauma.

How much money is all this costing you?

Whilst I very much come at this from a point of supporting the women involved, the reality is that if your organisation is not mitigating the reasons behind the avoidable sick days and deserting staff, then making the decision to provide that support so will save you money in reduced sick days, increased productivity and less recruitment costs.

As a illustration, an organisation with 100 women implementing women's health policies, awareness-raising and manager training will offer an annual saving of £32,000. Add to that one of our specialist women's health employee support programme those annual savings jump to £160,000 as women take control of their health and effectively reduce their symptoms.

(Based on industry standard stats for the numbers of engaged staff, cost of sick days, turnover, cost of recruitment, number of women with women's health needs and our stats on productivity and staff leaving)

Can you afford to continue to ignore women's health needs of your teams?

Enjoyed this? Read more from Halcyon Women's Health

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