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Cheryl Brennan: Why Employers need to proactively promote women’s health and wellbeing at work

On International Women’s Day, Cheryl Brennan, Executive Director for Health and Benefits at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, is highlighting why women’s health needs to be more of a priority for employers.

Common conditions such as endometriosis[i] which affects 1 in 10 women in the UK; the menopause; mental health including post-natal depression and peri-menopausal anxiety and fertility issues are frequently unrecognised in the workplace and there is often a stigma around talking about female health issues despite the rising number of women in the workplace.

The Office for National Statistics[ii] estimates that more than two-thirds (72%) of women aged 16-64 are employed (September to November 2020), this is an increase from 52.8% in the first quarter of 1971 when ONS first began recording this data[iii].

Cheryl Brennan says, “Women have made great strides in the workplace, but there are still barriers to overcome and health issues can be one of them.  Many common conditions that impact women are still not talked about in the workplace, which can leave them suffering in silence and reluctant to turn to their manager because they are not sure of the reaction they will receive.

“Women’s health issues can be embarrassing for both men and women to talk about, and women may feel self-conscious raising them, especially if their manager is male. This could negatively impact their productivity and hamper their careers and future development.’’

“Women can have added pressures from managing caring responsibilities too. With some choosing to have children later in life, they are often juggling a young family, whilst caring for elderly parents and relatives. This could also coincide with the onset of menopause, adding additional physical and emotional challenges.”

“For companies this can mean they are not getting the best out of a large proportion of their workforce; it may lead to increased absenteeism or presenteeism with the additional costs this involves as well as developing a reputation as an employer that doesn’t care about its female staff.’’

“In the end this could mean they lose valuable female talent from the business and have difficulty recruiting. It could also further widen already established gender pay gaps. This is not good for business or reputation. On International Women’s Day we are calling on employers to offer more support for women’s health and create a culture where there is no stigma to discussing issues such as menopause, mental health and fertility.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted other health risks for women. Before the pandemic it was reported that cervical cancer was on the rise in young women[iv] and deaths from breast cancer are set to rise[v] by 2022. However, the pandemic has caused almost 1 million women to miss breast screening[vi] and almost a third to miss cervical screening[vii]

Cheryl Brennan adds, “Women’s cancer could rise more than predicted in the next few years because of screening delays or the reluctance of women to see their GP if they were experiencing symptoms because of the pandemic. Men will also be affected for some cancers so employers should take action now and consider offering cancer screening programmes as part of their overall benefits strategy.”

Here Cheryl offers some top tips on how employers can help:

  • Remember women have a unique set of health and wellbeing requirements and a one size fits all approach is unlikely to help
  • Review existing policies and processes – around sickness, maternity leave, flexible working and health and safety to ensure that women’s health conditions are considered
  • Train and educate line managers in the different types and the potential impact of health conditions women face. This will enable them to have supportive conversations and ensure women can raise and discuss their symptoms/concerns
  • Consider flexible working, condensed hours and working from home to help women if they have a health issue or are struggling with childcare
  • Provide equal pay – while this may not happen overnight, where gender pay gaps have been identified, a clear action plan is required to redress the balance
  • Provide healthcare information covering women’s health issues and the treatments available
  • Remind women of support available – whether through benefits such as EAPs, virtual GPs and PMI cover or other sources, such as charities
  • If you offer health assessments for employees, include gender specific tests
  • Ask female employees what healthcare support and benefits they would like

Christine Husbands, Managing Director of RedArc adds, “As well as looking after women’s physical health, employers also need to provide emotional support. Employers may have support services in place, but they should check these can be tailored for women around what can often be very personal and sensitive subjects. General counselling is unlikely to help.”

“We provide specialist services for employers and our nurses give practical advice and emotional support in dealing with the many symptoms and implications of women’s health conditions. Having somewhere to turn to for emotional help, before or after a diagnosis, can be hugely valuable for female employees.”

RedArc is part of Howden Group Holdings alongside Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing Limited.