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Progression stunted by lack of women's health support

HR should write policies to support employers' confidence in discussing women's health, said Benenden Health's head of HR

One in four women feel that their career progression has been halted by a lack of support for women’s health at work, a survey has revealed.

The joint survey by women's rights charity Fawcett Society and healthcare provider Benenden Health found that 12% of businesses had a culture where women’s health issues could be discussed.

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, stated that women deserve to have their health work recognised at work.

She told HR magazine: "Every woman should have the right to go to and be safe at work. A lack of support for women’s health in the workplace is just one of the ways we entrench inequality at work, often in ways that seem invisible.

"It’s unsurprising that the UK is losing 150 million working days each year because of this when as many as 42% of women have heard derogatory comments about a woman employee’s health in the workplace, and 70% have found it challenging dealing with periods at work.

"Improving these poor outcomes begins with removing the stigma around women’s health issues at work."

Rebecca Mian, head of HR at Benenden Health, told HR magazine that having a supportive culture is vital to supporting women’s health.

She said: "The most wide-reaching way of supporting women’s health in the workplace is through the culture. This can be done by creating safe spaces to talk, and providing training to managers, colleagues and mental health first aiders, to show empathy when met with a female colleague’s health issue. 

"HR leaders and managers should be willing to put in temporary or permanent flexible working, to help navigate health concerns better. This might be later starting times to make GP appointments or working from home to manage painful symptoms outside of the office environment.”

A January 2024 study by Toner Giant found that 41% of Brits thought that employees who work remotely were less likely to get promoted.

Read more: Employees think remote workers are less likely to get promoted

Mian added that HR can improve communications to give employers more confidence discussing women's health.

She continued: “HR policies and procedures should also be written to provide guidance for colleagues and managers that will in turn benefit female employees. 

“But remember, it’s also important to tackle any derogatory comments around gender, which can otherwise lead to a toxic workplace where people don’t feel comfortable."

Of the 5,000 female employees surveyed, 41% wanted employers to introduce pregnancy loss leave, to better support their health.

Daniela Avalos Gonzalez, clinical psychologist at wellness centre The Soke, suggested that formal recognition of baby loss certificates could help.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “The abrupt, unexpected end and loss of a pregnancy in the context of miscarriage is often suffered in silence and isolation, compounded by guilt, confusion and significant pain.

“Formal recognition of the baby loss certificate by HR teams would allow employees to see that their employers are acknowledging the detrimental impact of that experience of bereavement and loss.”

Read more: Baby Loss Awareness Week: How to support your employees

Nearly a third (31%) of women who were surveyed called for improved maternity policies rather than statutory leave. A further 31% indicated that employers could offer free sanitary products.

Nick Dean, cofounder of women’s health consultancy Hey Flow, noted that employers could close their gender pay gap by improving maternity policies.

He told HR magazine: “The link between the gender pay gap and reproductive health is proven, businesses will only close the gap when they recognise the career pitfalls for women relating to reproductive health.

“Progressive employers are looking beyond standard reproductive health policies, such as pregnancy and maternity. 

“They also recognise that policy alone doesn't create enough meaningful support. It requires management and leadership to understand the implications beyond the symptoms and the realities of lived experience, enabling true support for everybody who experiences or is affected by pregnancy loss.”

The Fawcett Society and Benenden Health surveyed 5,000 female employees and 1,000 business owners in October 2023.