An end to workplace taboos surrounding women’s health
Under-recognised chronic gynaecological health conditions are holding back women’s productivity and could be damaging their career and earning potential, according to a new report launched by the Work Foundation.
The report highlights that women’s health conditions, such as endometriosis or infertility, having a long-term condition during pregnancy, and the experience of the menopause, are still considered taboo and are under-recognised in the workplace.
Endometriosis, a chronic condition that affects one in ten women of reproductive age in the UK, is the second most common gynaecological condition. It occurs when cells similar to those lining the uterus grow elsewhere in the body and can cause symptoms such as excessively painful periods, chronic pelvis pain and fatigue. There is no cure and symptoms get worse with age. The symptoms can also lead to poor mental health.
The report built upon a study conducted across ten countries that found women with endometriosis experience reduced work performance, losing on average almost 11 hours of work each week. This was mainly due to reduced effectiveness in work.
The costs of this lost productivity are considerable – on average costing almost €6,300 per person each year. A lack of support can also lead to women losing their jobs – particularly if they are in physical roles, such as in the armed forces.
Women with endometriosis can be reluctant to disclose their conditions due to concerns around stigma and a lack of understanding.
Researchers are calling for perceived taboos around women’s reproductive health to be shattered. They argue women need to be empowered to get support through greater recognition of conditions and ensuring parity alongside other workplace health issues. Researchers also call for dialogue among employers, policy makers and health professionals, and for endometriosis to be included in the Equality Act as a chronic, debilitating disease.
Karen Steadman, Health, Wellbeing and Work Lead at the Work Foundation, said:
“Women’s reproductive and gynaecological health is replete with whispered conversations and euphemisms. It’s time we changed this. Many of these conditions manifest in stress, poorer psychological health, fatigue and pain, all of which we know have considerable implications for work.
“The motherhood pay penalty, where mothers take time out of the labour market, is well known to sharply increase the gender pay gap from the age of 40. However, many women also experience reproductive health burdens that can also affect their ability to work and therefore possibly further exacerbate gender pay inequality. These conditions should not just be dismissed as ‘women’s issues’. As they affect so much of the UK’s working age population, they are important for the economy as a whole.”
The paper ‘More than Women’s issues: women’s reproductive and gynaecological health and work’ is the first in a new series of papers by the Work Foundation looking at gender, sex, health and work.
The paper also highlights:
- Poor mental health associated with infertility.
- Long-term health conditions becoming worse during pregnancy.
- Potential discrimination in the workplace for pregnant workers.
- 42% of menopausal women find their symptoms negatively affect their job performance.
- Women feel discussing the menopause with managers as being taboo.
The paper’s authors have included a set of recommendations, which include:
- Improved recognition of women’s reproductive health in workplace policy.
- Workplaces to provide confidential support for female workers.
- More information on conditions and work provided by government services and health professional organisations.
- Review the legal status of conditions.
- Review clinical guidance.
- Increase recognition of work as a health outcome.
- More research is needed in this area to better understand the challenges.