Women’s health: How inclusive is your workplace?

A necessary conversation on why prevention measures should account for female-specific conditions

Women’s health: How inclusive is your workplace?

This article was created in partnership with Beneva.

Despite holding almost half the jobs in Canada last year and likely making up a fair percentage of your team at this very moment, it’s rare that women’s health is specifically addressed in the workplace. In fact, it is often completely overlooked — and that needs to change.

Whether male or female themselves, managers must be conscious of the challenges of women’s health, to provide appropriate support over the course of their career.

From milestone events such as pregnancy and menopause, to an array of female-specific disorders, the complexity of women’s health issues is all the more reason for employers to address this neglected reality head on.

How is women’s health a factor in the workplace?

Every woman is different, and no discussion of the health issues they may encounter in their lifetime will be universal. Common health conditions that are female-specific are often very nuanced. They may not be perceived by the woman herself or by those around her, but if the condition is causing her hurt or discomfort — whether it be physically, mentally, emotionally or all of the above — her well-being, and therefore her work, may suffer.

Let’s take reproductive health and symptoms. From menstruation, which can cause discomfort when commuting or at the office, to fertility issues and treatment, which affects stress levels and emotional well-being, women experience a range of issues that impact work.

Next on that continuum could be pregnancy, which comes with its own challenges. Whether it’s nausea and vomiting in the first trimester, backaches and muscle tension, or increased fatigue due to low quality sleep during the night as they battle discomfort, physical symptoms can be intense and disruptive.

Not only that, difficulties finding comfortable positions to actually do their work, and the need for pre-natal care which requires frequent medical appointments, makes this time of a woman’s life especially difficult to achieve work-life balance.

There’s also returning to work after maternity leave, where complications such as infections or phlebitis, or ongoing symptoms like post-partum depression, require treatment and management.

The next major phase women experience is perimenopause and menopause

Perimenopause (the transition to menopause) and menopause can affect women’s quality of life, with 95% of women experiencing menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, headaches, mood changes and irritability, joint pain, bladder issues, weight gain and slowed metabolism, increased fatigue, anxiety, and memory and concentration difficulties.

The hormone fluctuation that characterizes this time in life, and the changes it unleashes on the person, can affect physical and mental health. Given these symptoms, it’s not surprising that approximately 1 out of 10 women will leave the labour market due to menopausal symptoms — but employers have the power to retain their talent. If managers better understand this natural stage and its impacts, they can make the workplace environment more inclusive.

Common health challenges for women in the workplace

Finally, women can face a number of specific gynecological disorders over the course of their lives and the intensity of the symptoms vary widely from person to person. Endometriosis, a complex, incapacitating condition that can cause chronic pelvic pain, persistent fatigue, infertility or increased risk of miscarrying, gastrointestinal conditions, and inflammation and pain during sexual relations is one example.

Another is polycystic ovary syndrome, the most frequent cause of infertility that causes irregular or lack of ovulation, excess androgen and estrogen, hirsutism (excessive hair in a male-like pattern), acne, headache, and anxiety, as well as metabolic syndromes and weight gain.

Uterine fibroma, which are benign uterine tumours, rounds out the list. Characterized by heavy menstrual bleeding or abnormal and prolonged bleeding between menstrual periods, which can cause anemia, pressure or pain in the pelvic area, back aches, and urinary and intestinal symptoms, this is another condition where any of the symptoms can prove disruptive for a woman’s well-being in the workplace.

Recognize the risk — and make necessary changes

Like so many other aspects of life, female-specific conditions impact the individual employee, their team, and the company as a whole. And just as organizations do for myriad other issues, preventative measures are the key for mitigating any negative impact on stakeholders.

The risks of taking no steps to support women experiencing any of the above issues include things like absenteeism or presenteeism, where employees miss work all together or work despite their health not being optimal. The latter affects concentration and efficiency, potentially delaying projects and causing work overload on the remaining team members, and ultimately raises costs for the organization.

This also funnels upwards as management faces increased responsibilities as they grapple with adapting schedules or employee duties to accommodate, and spreads outwards as overall wellness is reduced. The workplace environment and relationships among colleagues can take a substantial hit.

Human resources can work towards supporting women’s health in the workplace

But don’t underestimate your ability to make a difference: your human resources are precious and your support is too. Adapt your approach to one of prevention to meet women’s needs, and ensure an appropriate and respectful response.

The first step: get informed and put your prejudices aside. Learn about women’s health conditions, keep an open mind, and don’t be judgmental. One of the simplest things you can do is just listen carefully. Any time an employee talks to you about health concerns, it’s a sign of trust and your role is to hear them out with empathy.

It’s also critical to show recognition. While always a best practice, employees who are suffering often focus on the negative, from their own difficulties to their feelings about impacting the team or not performing to their usual standards. Remind them you’re happy they’re here, that they’re a valuable part of the team, and give examples of their contributions and competencies. Highlighting the positives will motivate them and strengthen their sense of belonging at a time when they most need it.

Finally, act in solution mode. Work with human resources to find solutions that meet the needs of women’s health. Can you make arrangements for extra breaks, for example? In the current landscape, with the labour shortage pressing on organizations, well-thought-out measures can easily be implemented and allow you to retain your experienced employees longer, reducing absenteeism and improving productivity.

Group insurance can also help, as it’s far more than reimbursement of drug and healthcare costs. A Manager Assistance Program (MAP) allows you to obtain online or telephone assistance, giving access to healthcare professionals and the best management practices advice. Employee assistance programs (EAP) give access to online, in-person, or telephone consultations and to a range of tools and resources. Importantly, this provides your employees with options in the even they need such assistance. In addition, short-term and long-term disability insurance provide financial aid to employees on leave.

The case for consideration is clear

Employers don’t often think about prevention when it comes to women’s health in the workplace, but the case of consideration is clear. Ask yourself if your current workplace prevention measures take into account female-specific conditions, and if they don’t, it’s time to reassess.

Recognizing women’s health needs contributes to a more inclusive working environment that promotes everyone’s well-being — and isn’t that the ultimate goal in the world of work today?

For more information, check out Beneva’s other resources.

Recent articles & video

Court decision in The Brick employee death ‘cautionary story’

Employers split when it comes to Canada’s economy

6 in 10 Canadians support federal return to office mandate: survey

Ottawa releases first-ever Enterprise Cyber Security Strategy

Most Read Articles

Alberta 'disastrously unprepared' for wildfire season, says union

Women see less benefit of returning to office: report

'Chronoworking' popular idea with Canadians: report