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Breaking Women’s Health Taboos – International Women’s Day 2024

07 March 2024

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Genevieve Bland Writer - The HR World

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Despite the rejection of the UK menopause law by Parliament in January last year, on the grounds of fears of discrimination against men in the workplace, women’s health remains at the forefront of the workplace wellbeing discussion. Below, Lesley Cooper, the founder of WorkingWell, a consultancy aimed at promoting healthier and more supportive workplaces, brings a unique perspective to the forefront of the discussion on women’s health in the workplace.

Women’s Health in the Workplace: Breaking the Silence

The specific nature of women‘s health issues is only too familiar to the many women who live with them. Most of them have been suffering silently in the workplace for decades, navigating conditions such as menopause and perimenopause, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and the array of painful symptoms associated with periods. Failure to formally recognise the specific nature of female health conditions is at the root of both the government’s response in rejecting the Bill and the still inadequate understanding of the wellbeing and performance impacts.

Common misconceptions abound in relation to women’s health conditions, many of which involve chronic pain. Thus far these misconceptions have remained largely unchallenged as, until very recently, the taboo nature of many aspects of women’s biology has contributed to a lack of information and education. As a result, many of these specific challenges are simply ignored or dismissed.

Traditionally workplace health has often been viewed from quite a universalised perspective on what ‘illness’ and ‘wellness’ look like. Inevitably this is not granular enough to accommodate those conditions that specifically affect women and other traditionally underrepresented groups. Women are not ill, but in many cases, they are regularly suffering the same or worse pain and discomfort that accompanies more recognisable chronic conditions that might normally result in absence from work.

Wellbeing at work should be examined on multiple levels to help leaders create real change in the support offered to women. Creating a safe space where management is more informed about specific aspects of women’s gynaecological and hormonal health will go a long way to correct misconceptions and shift workplace culture. When these discussions are supported by a proactive framework of accessible policies, we will be on our way to taking women’s health at work seriously.

However, none of the above will have the desired benefits until women feel psychologically safe enough to be open about their health challenges and take up the support on offer. As above, debilitating hormonal and gynaecological conditions are not new, yet only now after media scrutiny have some women felt able to talk about their experiences at work and the performance challenges they face. The traditionally taboo nature of gynaecological health conditions, rooted in centuries of erroneous beliefs and misogyny, has left a legacy of shame which still prevents most women from speaking openly about their experiences.

Challenging Misconceptions: The Taboo of Women’s Health

A third of women asked in a CIPD survey said that menopause symptoms had caused them to take time off of work, however, only 25% of these women felt comfortable telling their manager the reason for their absence. Of this 25%, 34% said that they felt too embarrassed to declare the real reason, and 32% said they could not disclose the information because they perceived their manager to be unsupportive.

The historical overrepresentation of men in leadership roles in the UK is not helping to improve women’s sense of psychological safety in this area, contributing as it does to a lack of awareness and interest in women’s health, precisely because they have been the minority. Still, only 1 in 25 CEOs in the biggest companies are women, and a Green Park study found that between 2019 and 2021 the number of white men in leadership roles actually increased.

Managers have a responsibility to lead in a way that creates psychological safety – that their own leadership style demonstrates their interest, empathy and respect for the unique and diverse perspectives, insights and experiences of each of their team members. There are multiple wellbeing and performance benefits to building a level of mutual trust (peer to peer and manager to team member) that enables candour and open dialogue.

The sad truth is that we find most workplaces do not feel all that psychologically safe and a lot that can be shared is not shared for fear of negative consequences. If female employees do not feel safe enough to be open about the concerns they may be having about the demands of their jobs, they are supremely unlikely to be open about how those problems may be amplified by their health challenges. This is a wellbeing, organisational learning and performance loss to both parties.

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