How to better support women at work

Research has revealed that just 12% of businesses have a culture where women’s health can be talked about

Employers can propel efforts to close the UK’s gender health gap. But they must act now.

Businesses across the UK need to do more to introduce workplace policies centred around women’s health. While many HR leaders recognise the importance  of this, there’s currently a low uptake in adopting policies such as pregnancy loss leave. Businesses are currently not taking action to support women’s health, most likely due to a lack of understanding of the health issues that women face, and the best ways to support them.

At Benenden Health we surveyed 5,000 female employees and 1,000 UK business owners, to shed light on the status of women’s health policies in the workplace. The findings revealed that only 18% of businesses currently offer free sanitary products and just 15% provide above-statutory leave.

Read more: Progression stunted by lack of women's health support

In addition, just 14% offer flexible working, and 12% have a wellbeing strategy in place. Only 12% of businesses carry pregnancy loss leave policies. 

Perhaps most alarmingly, the research revealed that just 12% of businesses have a culture where women’s health can be talked about. This demonstrates the significant gap in workplace support that is tailored towards women’s health, and shows why businesses need to take immediate action.

Women take an average of nine sick leave days a year, due to a lack of understanding and support at work around women’s health issues. To help close this gap, we need much better education in workplaces.

How can employers can help

Women are more focused and more productive in the workplace when they have better health outcomes. Businesses need to think about the issues that are most impacting their people. That might mean pregnancy or pregnancy loss, menopause, painful periods, or conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Talk to your employees and listen to what they believe is lacking. You’ll then be able to introduce measures that aim to close the gender health gap and create an inclusive and supportive work environment.

Read more: Shifting the balance in women's health: why we're finally talking about it

To find out if you have a gender health gap within your organisation, start by gathering relevant data. This should include an employee survey. Aim to capture a broad spectrum of health issues, including, but not limited to, those specific to women.

You should also look at the data around absences, to see what health issues are causing women to take the most leave. Exit interview data can be helpful for revealing whether health-related factors have contributed to the reasons women have left the organisation in the past.

Once you have a better understanding of the health issues women are facing in your organisation, talk to your employees. Invite them to explain the problems they’re currently facing. And really listen.

Draw up clear guidelines for managers and employees on how to have these discussions in a way that avoids any kind of stigma. Training managers to handle these conversations in an empathetic way, and recognising when employees might be struggling, is vital for making a real difference.

Read more: Ill-health top reason UK women expect to leave work before retirement

You should also look at what adjustments need to be made, and include these in the guidelines. This could be introducing more flexible working hours, or modifying responsibilities for a period of time. You could trial different approaches to see what works, including allowing for additional breaks throughout the day, or making allowances for more comfortable workwear, where appropriate.

Ultimately you should build a supportive framework that promotes open dialogue and reasonable adjustments to women’s health policies. By doing this, you’ll help to create a more considerate and productive workplace.

There’s a long way to go to close the gender health gap. But by acting now, businesses will begin to make a difference. It requires open dialogue, gathering data on issues and introducing supportive frameworks, all of which will help to make a huge difference.

By Rebecca Mian, director of people services at Benenden Health