Women's health in the workplace
Find out about some of the common health conditions affecting women and how businesses can support women in the workplace.
Women’s health issues are still often misunderstood, and many women go years without receiving the correct diagnosis and treatment. While women are prone to many of the same health issues as men, there are a number of conditions that affect solely or predominately women.
With women making up around half the UK workforce, it is important that organisations make women’s health a priority and take steps to reduce the stigma around female health issues, particularly reproductive health. According to See Her Thrive, many women feel their reproductive health issues would be dismissed as ‘women’s issues’ and therefore not taken seriously by their employer (1).
Here are some common health conditions affecting women:
PMS and PMDD
Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, is the name given to a range of symptoms women experience, usually before or during their period. These symptoms can vary month-to-month and range from mild to severe, however common symptoms include mood changes, tiredness, abdominal pain, headaches and trouble sleeping.
Between 20% and 40% of women experience moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms, and up to 8% of these experience symptoms that prevent them from functioning in normal daily life (2). If this is the case it becomes premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Symptoms of PMDD include severe fatigue, mood changes including depression and anxiety, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, backache, abdominal pain and headaches.
Both PMS and PMDD can affect how women function in the workplace. According to a large survey of over 32,000 women conducted in the Netherlands, almost 14% of women reported absenteeism during their periods, and a massive 81% reported presenteeism and decreased productivity (3).
Thought to occur in around 1 in 20 people and affecting mostly women, thyroid disorders impact the functioning of the thyroid gland and the hormones it produces. Symptoms of a thyroid disorder include fatigue, weight gain or loss, low mood, brain fog and anxiety.
One of the problems with thyroid disorders is that they can often go undiagnosed, and symptoms can be mistaken for other things such as menopause, resulting in women suffering for long periods of time. A research study conducted in Denmark found those with hyperthyroidism were significantly more likely to take prolonged sick leave from work than those without the disorder (seven times more likely in those with eye complications, four times as likely in those without) (4).
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a common condition that affects how the ovaries work. The three main features of the condition are irregular periods, excess androgen (‘male’ hormones) and enlarged ovaries or fluid-filled sacs surrounding the eggs.
Symptoms of PCOS include irregular or no periods, fertility issues, weight gain, thinning hair on the head, excessive hair on the body and acne. Women with PCOS are also at higher risk for developing other health problems long-term such as high cholesterol and diabetes. It can also affect a woman’s mental health for a number of reasons, one being due to worries about fertility, though many women with this condition do manage to successfully conceive.
Endometriosis is a disorder that causes body tissue similar to that of the uterus lining to grow in other places outside of the uterus including the ovaries, fallopian tubes and pelvis. This painful disorder can take a long time to diagnose (the average diagnosis time is 7.5 years in the UK) and causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, excessive bleeding and infertility (5).
A study of women in the US found women with endometriosis had an average of 5.3 hours lost because of employment presenteeism, and 1.1 hours lost because of employment absenteeism (6).
The menopause is a natural part of aging for women and occurs when the ovaries stop producing as much oestrogen and no longer produce an egg each month. This also causes a woman’s periods to stop, and she is no longer able to conceive naturally. Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 45-55, but around 1% of women experience early menopause.
Although the menopause happens to all women, symptoms can be severe. Hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, low mood, anxiety and problems with memory and concentration are all common symptoms.
According to a UK survey published by Maturitas, almost 40% of women aged 45-55 felt their performance at work had been negatively affected by symptoms of menopause, and three-quarters of women surveyed said they hadn’t discussed menopause with their line manager (7).
Fertility issues and treatment
Infertility affects around 1 in 7 heterosexual couples in the UK (8) and is defined as trying to get pregnant for at least a year with no success. There are many factors for both men and women that can affect fertility and it can be a stressful time for couples. In women, PCOS, thyroid disorders, fibroids, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease are just some of the causes.
Infertility treatments for women will differ depending on the cause. Some common treatments include medication, surgical procedures, and assisted conception such as IVF. Symptoms of these treatments will vary, but IVF for example can cause fatigue, mood swings, nausea, abdominal pain and emotional stress from not getting pregnant or miscarriage.
Research by Fertility in the Workplace shows the majority of people suffering with infertility are reluctant to speak to their employer about it as they worry it will negatively impact their career, and 19% of people facing infertility reduce their work hours or leave altogether (9).
Pregnancy complications can occur for a number of reasons, either as a new condition or as complications from an existing health condition. Some common pregnancy complications include ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia (high blood pressure and protein levels), premature labor and placental abruption.
Pregnancy complications can result in the need for ongoing support and treatment throughout a woman’s pregnancy, affecting their ability to work normally. And even women with healthy pregnancies will experience a range of symptoms such as morning sickness and nausea, fatigue, back pain, indigestion and headaches.
Reports suggest women are still experiencing negative treatment in the workplace related to pregnancy. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 1 in 5 mothers reported experiencing harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employers and/or colleagues, and 10% of mothers said their employer discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments (10).
Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body. Common autoimmune diseases include Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease and the thyroid disorders Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s disease. They have a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe and can have a significant impact on quality of life. Some common early symptoms include fatigue, aches and pains, swelling and rashes, trouble concentrating and hair loss.
According to the British Society for Immunology, autoimmunity is a 'significant cause of ill health' in the UK with rates of the diseases rising, particularly in women with about 75% of those affected being female (11).
How businesses can support women’s health
With a significant percentage of the female workforce experiencing one of more health condition, it is important businesses have in place policies to support them. Here are some of the actions organisations can take:
- Allow flexible working – so women can work at times best suited to them
- Have clear sickness and absence procedures – including leave for medical appointments
- Start open conversations – host sessions on women’s health to educate and reduce stigma
- Have a dedicated area for women – where they can go if experiencing symptoms
- Ask for feedback and do surveys – to ensure your workplace policies are benefiting women
- Ensure access to health information and resources – including which health conditions and symptoms to be aware of
- Implement staff training – to ensure line managers are equipped to best support women with health issues
- Have a confidentiality policy – so women feel they can communicate their health issues with their employer
- Offer occupational health assessments - for conditions that may impact working
Female health tests
One of the best ways to support women with their health in the workplace is to offer them access to regular health testing.
Medichecks have a range of tests designed for women to help monitor their health on an ongoing basis, including tests for general health, hormones, fertility, thyroid function, PCOS and menopause.
Many of these tests can be completed conveniently at home with a simple collection kit, with results delivered securely online with advice from a qualified doctor. Results can also be downloaded as a PDF to take to the GP should any follow-up treatment be needed.
Find out more about corporate health checks here.
(6) Endometriosis 2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28650252/
(7) Menopause survey https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378512213002235