While health and wellbeing are a key consideration for leaders, often women’s health is not appropriately supported due to misconceptions and gaps in policy that fail to recognise health issues that impact women, says Lesley Cooper.
To maximise employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity, leaders must address the gaps in wellbeing frameworks that are neglecting to accommodate hormonal and gynaecological health conditions that will impact many women in their working lives and impact their experience of work.
Here are three tips for leaders to shift their perspective and recalibrate wellbeing strategy to protect and support female members of the workforce.
1. Move away from a ‘one size fits all’ wellbeing framework
Traditional wellbeing policy is often rooted in a universalised perspective on health that promotes rigid definitions of what it means to be healthy versus ill. As historically healthcare has often been focused on research into male health, our perceptions around health are rooted in thinking that stems back centuries, making it important to continuously update our understanding of health and wellness.
A study undertaken by Endometriosis UK in 2020 found that in various HR departments, the cyclical nature of endometriosis resulted in those suffering being penalised as policy suggested that shorter, more frequent absences were more damaging to companies than long, less frequent absences. This means that other conditions that affect women such as PCOS and severe period symptoms would also result in penalisation.
It is these kinds of policy gaps that are resulting in women being unfairly penalised for absences and are stifling appropriate support for women’s health in the workplace. When the policy does not reflect the diversity of the workplace, women are less likely to feel safe to be honest about what they are going through and suffer in silence, compromising their productivity and wellbeing.
Broadening reasoning behind sick leave to accommodate a bigger range of conditions will help to create a robust wellbeing framework that accommodates women’s health and prevents any feelings of guilt or shame in women for needing time off.
2. Challenge personal biases and preconceptions
Unfortunately, a lack of education and the taboo nature of female health has resulted in a real lack of understanding and the spreading of misconceptions. Endometriosis, for example, is a chronic pain condition and the symptoms go beyond painful menstrual cramps and fertility struggles. Chronic back and pelvic pain, stomach issues and intestine and urinary issues are all symptoms that are often not discussed and so despite them being just as common and challenging for sufferers.
The Endometriosis UK survey found that 55 percent respondents either often or very often had to have time off work due to symptoms. A staggering 38 percent felt they were restricted in what work they can do, 38 percent had concerns about losing their job, and 27 percent felt they missed out on promotion as a direct result.
Systematic change starts with leadership teams, and so it is crucial for leaders to educate themselves to help understand the nature of these conditions and how they may impact work and wellbeing. Wider understanding will help prevent women’s pain being dismissed and challenge any feeling of embarrassment around conversations about health conditions which affect women.
3. Make support clear and easily accessible
Leaders and managers often feel under pressure to always be able to solve a problem, which can be particularly challenging when it comes to personal conversations. It is important to recognise that it is okay to not have the answers when it comes to health concerns, and recognising this can be an important factor in preventing conversations feeling awkward or embarrassing.
What is important is that leaders make themselves available and listen with curiosity and empathy so that employees can see that management cares about them and what they are going through and is there to offer support. Signposting appropriate support, whether that be a counsellor or a healthcare provider is important, and making that support easily accessible is also key.
When support is advertised but is challenging to access then employees are much less likely to use it. Too much hoop jumping will only deter those seeking help, so making swift, easy access standard practice is important.
Conclusively, to appropriately support women’s health in the workplace, leaders must be willing to address their own misconceptions and educate themselves to ensure they can offer the most suitable support to those who need it. Reframing ideas of health and applying this to workplace policy is crucial to protect women and make them feel protected at work.
Lesley Cooper is Founder and CEO of WorkingWell.