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

Opening up about the menopause has started a sea-change for women’s health at work, but what will be its legacy effect?

There can’t be many TV shows that would claim to have had an impact on workplace attitudes towards women’s health, but Davina McCall’s Sex Myths and the Menopause could well be one of them.

As Josie Mortimer, senior people director at WeightWatchers (WW) UK, points out: “That a well-known celebrity was speaking so passionately and candidly about something so personal is what I believe has really opened up a new area of conversation.”

After years of sweeping women’s health under the carpet, policymakers are also getting on board. Attempts are being made to level the current playing field, particularly in the workplace, by the release of the Women’s Health Strategy in England and the Women’s Health Plan in Scotland.

While this focus on wellbeing more generally had already begun to emerge pre-Covid in attempts to boost staff productivity, the pandemic took the subject to a whole new level. It also shone a spotlight on the difficulties many women faced in balancing work and personal commitments, which led to them leaving the workplace in droves.

Unsurprisingly, another driver behind this current emphasis on female health is employee retention, particularly at a time when job vacancies are plentiful and staff turnover high.

Lindsay McDonald is employee benefits manager at IT consultancy CapGemini UK, which is recognised as one of the UK’s Best Workplaces for Women in 2022.

“Many companies are losing their top female talent as the right support and benefits aren’t in place to enable people to be the best they can be,” she says. “It’s such a challenging market out there, but if people recognise you’re an inclusive company, it can really help with recruitment and retention.”

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A huge rebalancing

But there are other important dynamics too, says Lesley Cooper, founder and chief executive of employee wellbeing consultancy WorkingWell.

“It’s partly about talent retention, but also in practical terms, if you have 100 people working for you and half are women, you want them all to perform at their best,” she says. “And if there are challenges getting in the way of that, why wouldn’t you put things in place to help?”

As a result of all this, Mortimer is convinced that a huge rebalancing is currently taking place in terms of how women’s health is viewed by employers, which is changing how they are looking after their staff.

"The most significant trend in the workplace we’re seeing, and driving here at WW, is the real shift in openness and in everyone’s comfort levels about being able to talk about women’s health more freely,” she says.

Cooper agrees, confirming that growing awareness of the issues around menopause in particular has been a key catalyst in driving this change.

“The root of it is removing stigma by having the conversation, and it’s why encouraging that has led to such an explosion of interest,” she says. “Once something is de-stigmatised, it stays that way and even moves into new areas.”

To help eradicate such taboos and adopt a more purposeful and holistic approach, WW – which has a workforce that is 87.3% female – introduced a Menopause Matters campaign towards the end of 2021. Activities ranged from senior leaders sharing their experiences to normalise the conversation, to the provision of a menopause toolkit, which included support from Mental Health First Aiders.


Women’s wellbeing and gender equity

Another employer that started offering formal support to menopausal women as early as 2018 is the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) – 79% of whose workforce is women. Following the publication of research that suggested peri-menopausal symptoms could impact how people felt at work and even cause some to quit, the firm introduced a campaign as part of its wider gender equity strategy.

The campaign had three key aims, says Fiona Vernon, senior manager for diversity, equity and inclusion.

The first was to raise awareness of what menopause means for women, which includes managing their symptoms. The second was to create a culture where the subject could be talked about openly, and the third was to empower women to obtain the support they require.

In April, the company introduced a scheme enabling women in England – the only UK region where fees are charged – to claim back the costs of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Cooper commends WBA’s stance of including women’s wellbeing in its wider gender equity strategy, a move she believes is vital if real change is to occur.

“The idea of women having particular issues isn’t about weakness, wanting sympathy or having allowances made,” she points out. “Women already feel on the back foot and have to work twice as hard as their male colleagues to get to the same level, so it’s just about asking others to appreciate sometimes how much harder they’re having to work today to stay in the same place.”

Cooper also believes the issue of menopause is a great starting point for change in women’s health terms to be introduced more widely.

“Menopause is the foundation on which other things can be built,” she explains. “There are so many challenges women face that aren’t articulated, but once people open up about them, it’s much easier to be open about other things too.”


Addressing menopause alone is not enough

Janet Lindsay is chief executive of charity Wellbeing of Women, which has introduced a Menopause Workplace Pledge, to which more than 1,000 employers have already signed up in under a year. She is also clear that simply focusing on menopause is not enough.

“It’s important for employers to acknowledge that women’s health doesn’t start or end with the menopause,” she says.

For example, Lindsay points out, around one in 20 women aged between 30 and 49 visit their GP each year for help with heavy periods or menstrual problems. Endometriosis, which is painful and debilitating, has limited treatment options and no cure, affects 1.5 million women in the UK. One in eight couples trying for a baby experience unexplained infertility and one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage.

“A recent report by the Work Foundation found that health conditions during pregnancy, endometriosis and infertility can have a detrimental impact on people’s productivity and careers,” she says.


"It’s important for employers to acknowledge that women’s health does not start or end with the menopause"


“This is primarily due to a lack of support.”

One company trying to address women’s health and wellbeing more broadly is Capgemini UK. In addition to the support it gives to women going through menopause, it also offers assistance in cases of infertility, pregnancy and baby loss.

Employees are entitled to five days of paid leave for each cycle of fertility treatment, up to a maximum of three cycles per year.

After an infertility diagnosis, a £20,000 lifetime cash benefit is also made available to all eligible members of the firm’s Medical Plan.

Following pregnancy loss, members of staff are entitled to 10 days of paid leave, which can be taken for up to six months afterwards.

Employee networks have also been set up across all these areas so that colleagues can share experiences and provide mutual support. Access to online experts is offered too via the Peppy healthcare app.


Genie out of the bottle

As McDonald points out: “People go through different journeys at different times and need different support, so it’s about having the right mix of help, benefits and policies in place.”

Moreover, because the genie is now out of the bottle, WBA’s Vernon believes that the current focus on women’s health is unlikely to simply end up being a flash in the pan like so many other initiatives.

“The wellbeing agenda is here to stay,” she says. “If you’re a person-centred organisation, you’re interested in the whole person and want them to stay in work, so the emphasis on wellbeing will continue.”

But to make sure it does, Cooper says, HR needs to help lead from the front.

“It’s about being brave and saying ‘this is my story and this is how life played out for me’,” she says. “If you share, you give permission for others to share too, but you also need to push for creating a psychologically safe working environment where it’s okay to tell the truth.”

The only potential difficulty is finding ways to navigate future possible equality issues. This means achieving the right balance between being a supportive employer and being seen to give one group special treatment over another, which can lead to resentment.

Cooper says: “We have to be mindful that if the equality balance tips, women could go back to being seen as the weaker sex needing special provisions – and no one really knows where the line is until we’re on the wrong side.

“And there’s a lot of road still to be travelled here because we’re essentially coming at it from a cold start.”


Changes introduced by employers under the Menopause Workplace Pledge

• Tesco is changing its staff uniform to include a breathable fabric intended to help women with hot flushes. It is also holding a regular Menopause Café.

• Co-op is developing a dedicated menopause support guide for managers across its food stores, funeral homes, legal services and insurance businesses.

• Royal Mail is introducing menopause training for its workforce and an internal campaign to help normalise conversations about it.