Written by Sally Campbell, head of clinical development and mental health lead, Healix Health Services 

Employee health and wellbeing has thankfully risen up the corporate agenda in recent years, but there’s still much more progress to be made around women’s health in the workplace.   

Over the past 50 years, the number of women entering work has risen dramatically. Today, 72% of women aged between 16 and 64 are in employment, yet female health issues from mental health and menopause to postnatal depression and fertility continue to be swept under the rug across many businesses.  

In fact, research has shown that more than one million women in the UK could be forced out of their jobs this year due to a lack of menopause support from their employer1, and this comes at a true price for employers considering it costs an average of £35k to replace an employee.2 

To build truly diverse, inclusive workplaces that champion all employees, supporting female health and wellbeing needs to be a priority for business leaders.  

Female mental health  

Women face a range of issues in the workplace, from balancing home and work life to dealing with female health issues including pregnancy, gynaecological conditions and menopause.  

Women also face their own unique mental health challenges, with research showing that women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders and young women aged between 16 and 24 almost three times as likely to experience a common mental health issue as males.3  

There are lots of different factors that can affect female mental health and it’s important that employers recognise the challenges they face.  

The unrelenting pressures of the pandemic highlighted the juggling act that many women contend with, with significantly more women taking on caring responsibilities than men. However, this can take its toll on female mental health, with research by the Office for National Statistics showing that women’s wellbeing was more negatively affected than men’s during the first year of the pandemic4, with many women suffering from burnout.5  

As workplaces adjust to life in a post-pandemic world, it’s key that they provide flexible working arrangements and support women in creating a healthy work-life balance that enables them to maintain their careers alongside these additional roles without neglecting their own health. What’s more, failing to support women could see some choose to leave the workplace taking with them valuable skills, experience and diversity of thought.  

It’s also vitally important that employers don’t overlook maternal wellbeing, particularly for new mothers returning to the workplace. Having a baby is a life-changing event, both physically and emotionally, and while we often hear the term ‘baby blues’ bandied about, at least one in 10 women will experience postnatal depression after giving birth, with some studies suggesting this figure could be as high as 1 in 7 women.6  

Initiatives such as Maternal Mental Health Awareness month in May offer employers a great opportunity to spark a conversation around how women are feeling in the workplace and what more can be done to improve existing policies but it’s important that companies don’t just pay lip service.  

Providing education and training to managers can help them to spot the early signs that someone is struggling and raise awareness around perinatal health. Staying in touch during maternity leave can also help women to feel a valued part of the team and ensuring that they receive the right support and access to flexible working on their return is essential.  

Tailored health benefits  

Up until the age of 55, women may have more healthcare needs than their male colleagues from heavy menstruation, pelvic floor dysfunction and endometriosis through to fertility issues, getting pregnant and the menopause.  

Creating tailored benefits that respond directly to women’s specific health requirements can go a long way in increasing female employee engagement and ensuring that women feel cared for and understood in the workplace.  

The pandemic has forced people to think about their health much more closely and many have started to reconsider their employee benefits. It’s no longer simply enough to offer dress down Fridays or trendy office spaces; employees want to work for an employer that prioritises their wellbeing.  

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that many female health benefits are excluded from traditional private medical insurance policies, including fertility and maternity care. Employers may consider introducing benefits which are able to be tailored to women’s health needs in the workplace at the same time as providing sustainable healthcare schemes which benefit the whole of the workforce.   

Women’s health specialists supported by round the clock GP services can help to alleviate the difficulties of obtaining timely guidance and advice using traditional NHS services which can be difficult to access otherwise.  

Employers need to also ensure that female staff are given time off for routine tests such as cervical and breast screening. The biggest issue with missing screenings is the potential for a health problem to go undetected and left untreated. Providing support for women, whether that’s through allowing time off or including private healthcare options in any healthcare benefits, will encourage women to prioritise their health and normalise conversations around female health conditions.  

Additionally, introducing policies such as paid leave and counselling for miscarriage and baby loss, and making adjustments for women struggling with symptoms of menopause or painful gynaecological conditions would help to destigmatise women’s health and the impact on their working lives.  

Inclusive culture  

Despite women making up a large percentage of the workforce, female health continues to be something of a taboo. Many women still feel uncomfortable talking about female issues with their employer, especially when it comes to discussing gynaecological issues with a male manager and some managers may also feel embarrassed or uncertain how to broach certain subjects. However, not talking about female issues only perpetuates this vicious cycle, reinforcing the notion that women should keep quiet and could result in women’s performance and mental wellbeing becoming affected.  

It is an employer’s responsibility to normalise and encourage open discussions around female health by putting in place clear policies for all health conditions and providing access to information and guidance. Educating line managers on the different types and impacts of female health conditions will also help to break down the stigma and create a culture where open and supportive conversations are the norm.  

In a competitive market, employers can’t ignore the fact that employee expectations are growing and care for employee wellbeing is top of their list. A study by Gallup found that 61% of employees now consider work-life balance and wellbeing ‘very important’7 and companies that continue to overlook these factors may find themselves losing talent.  

While various initiatives and campaigns around mental health are a fantastic way to shine a spotlight on employee wellbeing, it’s important that the conversation doesn’t become limited to those events. Taking care of female health should be a key focus all year round and companies that do so will reap the rewards of a happier, more engaged and productive workforce.