Women across the country are opening up about their struggles with debilitating pelvic pain and general discomfort due to conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis and menopause.
Many of these women have spent years, even decades, suffering in silence in the workplace, often because they’re too afraid to tell their employer. And because these conditions are often invisible, with no outward presenting symptoms, it can be difficult to know who’s affected.
For those who want to reach out to their boss about their health concerns, the picture isn’t always that much better. According to the Women’s Health survey, 65% of women feel uncomfortable speaking about their health in the workplace.
So what can be done to tackle this issue and ensure that women in the workplace receive the support they need?
Women’s health struggles in the workplace more common than you’d think
When you look at the number of women who are quietly enduring these illnesses, the statistics are astonishing.
In the UK alone, around 1.5 million women suffer from endometriosis, a condition where cells similar to the ones in the lining of the womb grow outside the uterus. A further 1 in 10 women have symptoms of adenomyosis, which causes endometrial tissue in the lining of the uterus to grow into the muscular wall of the uterus. Symptoms for both these conditions include severe pelvic pain, heavy bleeding and bloating.
Millions more women are living with excruciating period pain. A recent report from the Wellbeing of Women charity found that 96% of women and girls aged between 16 and 40 years old had experienced period pain, with 59% saying their pain was severe.
Then there’s the pain, discomfort and mental distress that’s caused by the menopause. Around a quarter of women in the workforce are of menopausal age, which means millions of women across the country may be experiencing symptoms. Yet the full impact is often not well understood or supported in workplace policies and training.
Of course, this is just a small piece of a much wider picture. The true scale of the problem is much harder to define, particularly as so many cases go unreported.
Why aren’t more women speaking up?
Despite the high prevalence of these conditions, many women choose not to speak to their employers. Others feel they’re not supported when they do. For example, three quarters of women say they’ve lied when taking a sick day due to their period for fear of being judged by their boss. Half (50%) think painful periods are ‘just part of being a woman’ and wouldn’t consider seeing a GP.
The reasons behind this are varied and complex. Some women may fear their symptoms won’t be taken seriously by their employer or feel awkward about bringing it up. Others could be worried that it will have a negative impact on how they’re perceived in the workplace, or even impact their career trajectory.
Regardless of whether women choose to call in sick under another pretence or continue to work through the pain, the end result is likely to be the same: they won’t get the support they need – whether that’s from a clinician or their employer.
This only makes matters worse and may lead to other health issues, including anxiety and depression. A study conducted by the Department for Health and Social found that 76% of the women who were surveyed said that dealing with illnesses and disabilities increased their stress levels, while 67% said it affected their mental health.
How can employers support female employees suffering from invisible illnesses?
As with all societal issues, there’s no easy solution to the problem. However, there are a number of ways in which employers can support their people, which will help to break down the stigma around female reproductive health. These include:
1.Building awareness in leadership teams and the wider workplace
Awareness is a key step in any support and wellbeing strategy. Employers should make it a point to continuously educate and train line managers and HR in female health and make them aware of any policies they have in place that support women’s unique health needs. This will help to create a supportive atmosphere where female employees feel comfortable discussing their health concerns.
By cascading this knowledge down throughout the entire team and encouraging open dialogue, companies can help reduce the stigma attached to female reproductive health. This is a good way to communicate their commitment to their female employees’ overall wellbeing. This can help in making them feel comfortable in opening up and seeking support.
2.Offering flexible working options
On a practical level, flexible working arrangements can be a game-changer for female employees dealing with pelvic pain. Women who have greater flexibility with their working hours are more likely to feel empowered to manage their pain without the fear of compromising their careers.
Remote work in particular allows female employees suffering from pelvic pain to create a comfortable environment tailored to their specific needs. Meanwhile, flexible hours provide the freedom to schedule work tasks around medical appointments, pain flare-ups, or moments when they feel more energetic.
Similarly, compressed workweeks, where employees complete their standard hours in fewer days, offer longer recovery periods between workdays, allowing women to balance their professional responsibilities with essential self-care.
3.Offering tailor-made health and wellbeing services
Just like men, women have unique health needs, and these should be recognised within an employer’s health and wellbeing programme.
Employee benefits like health cash plans and employee assistance programmes can be especially helpful for female employees as they offer access to confidential GP appointments, as well as mental and financial wellbeing support. Likewise, business medical insurance can help employees get a prompt diagnosis, referral and faster access to private treatments.
4.Appointing a female health officer
The presence of a designated health officer, particularly a woman who can advocate for female health, can have a profound impact on women in the workplace. For one, it creates a safe space for employees to discuss their concerns openly, without fear or embarrassment.
Female health officers can also provide information about the specific medical resources available, recommend trusted healthcare professionals, and guide employees on effective pain management techniques.
Together, these changes can help transform the culture of a workplace, making it a more inclusive and supportive environment for women. The result? Millions more women will feel empowered to speak up and seek support, and these so-called invisible illnesses can stop being so invisible.
Worrying is having a negative impact on women’s health, and worry of others can lead to women neglecting their own health.