Woman nursing headache at desk

Women’s health in the workplace

Transforming workplaces so that women can thrive at work

Written by Kath Mazzella OAM
3 minute read
Woman nursing headache at desk

Workplaces are traditionally not places where personal information, especially women’s health information, is shared easily and safely.

However, the modern working woman expects her workplace to be inclusive and responsive to her health needs.

And in a modern society, where sharing your life publicly has become a lifestyle, workplaces need to develop a culture where women’s health issues can become as accepted as other health conditions.

Too often we hear stories of women who have a deep sense of purpose and connection to their employment but lack the strategy necessary to navigate health-related issues that are sensitive.

Consequently, they leave jobs they love because they don’t possess the skills, knowledge and confidence to negotiate flexible working arrangements.

Courageous conversations

This issue also partially lies with managers, who don’t create open communication with their workers about health issues or offer flexible work options, or work modifications to accommodate health challenges.

Imagine if this could be rewritten through courageous conversations between female employees and their managers around women’s health issues such as infertility, hysterectomy, menopause and gynaecological cancers.

You may hear my story, or other women’s stories and think it’s not relevant to you because you don’t have that problem.

Though you may not have the same issue now, you may have it in the future.

You may also have a partner, sister, mother, aunt, niece, daughter, or friend who is currently suffering in silence.

A female executive who has supported my advocacy work for over a decade developed a gynaecological condition.

She hadn’t fully realised the depths of how impacting the condition could be until it was happening to her.

“It was the inconvenience of how this was going to affect my work life that caused me the most grief,” she said.

“I could no longer go through a normal day without needing to get up and move around because it was uncomfortable to sit for long periods. Some days I couldn’t even wear underwear, it was too painful.

“Suffice to say, it required tremendous courage, some serious conversations with my workplace, and a shift to working mostly remotely for me to continue to be able to do my work.”

Issues relating to women’s health appear to be missing from the agenda for many workplaces.

There are millions of women in workplaces today suffering in silence, too embarrassed to speak out about their experiences, or leaving due to not feeling understood nor supported.

If we can become more aware, we can know how best to attend to these issues in their infancy, so they don’t result in major interruptions to productivity and workplace relationships.

And most importantly of all, we can improve the quality of life for women.

How to make your workplace supportive of women’s health

Becoming a workplace of choice for women involves three main themes:

1. Showing empathy. Be genuinely curious, sensitively address the subject, actively listen and demonstrate compassion in responses to disclosures. Asking a woman how she wants a workplace to respond to her needs is a good starting point rather than making assumptions.

2. Being educated about women’s health issues. It prevents women having to be asked for detailed explanations. Questions like “what’s that?” when a woman is explaining a health issue, result in her having to explain the symptoms of her condition, which can be embarrassing. Know what support services are available to supplement employment assistance program services.

3. Offering flexibility within the role. Provide flexibility to work remotely, to take regular breaks, to have ergonomic equipment that allows her to sit, stand or lie down. Create workplace cultures that accept these variations from the standard work practices.

Women’s health can be challenging for all involved, but being supportive and flexible cannot be undervalued. Create a balance between the needs of the workplace and the needs of the female worker.

Women who are well supported and informed will continue to be productive throughout their work life span and their wisdom won’t be lost to our workplaces.