How Flexible Working Empowers Women

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The changes to flexible working laws that came into effect on 6th April gift us a great opportunity to look at the suitability of our current policies and revamp them to make them as effective as possible. I invite you to ask whether your flexible working policy really meets the needs of the women in your teams. Or does it reflect the current gender health gap we see across the UK?
Did you know that in a House of Lords report last year, the UK was found to have the 12th largest gender health gap in the World? And the worst in the G20? We are living with a historical health system that hasn’t moved with the times and that has left women’s needs being ignored across the UK. As society has changed, sadly our health systems haven’t; they way that women’s health problems manifest and impact are different to men’s and that’s simply not recognised in our healthcare systems. Added to the fact that women tend to face more barriers to accessing the services in the first place means that our gender health gap is something that impacts us all.
Section 7 of the Women’s Health Strategy is all about support in the workplace for women’s health needs and it highlights just how important our working lives and environments are in addressing the health inequalities here in the UK. Because, sadly, a lot of our workplace systems reflect those outdated values that we see in our healthcare. Our processes and policies at work tend not to reflect the differences in women’s and men’s health needs and this can be hugely impactful, with 86% of women we asked having left of thought about leaving jobs they enjoyed because their health needs weren’t being supported.
A good flexible working policy can really start to redress this imbalance, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) providing real and effective support for your female team members that will see reduced absence and better staff retention.
For example...
Does your flexible working policy enable women to easily avoid situations where their heavy bleeding, bloating or abdominal pain gets in the way of a ‘normal’ working day?
Does your work planning take into account menstrual cycles? Can women easily take time off for appointments with the fertility specialists or gynecologists?
Does your flexible working policy allow sufficient time for healing or rebalancing after smear tests (which can be incredibly invasive and painful for a lot of women), hormonal procedures, women’s health operations or for every stage (and possible outcome) of the fertility/pregnancy journeys?
By and large, men’s health operations require a procedure then a time for physical healing. A flexible working or sickness policy that allows for, say, two weeks recovery then a potential staged return fits well here. The impact of women’s health procedures can look very different – of course they have a physical healing element but with the added complications of our hormones or wider conditions. Taking the smear test again as an example; a “simple” 10-minute procedure that’s widely seen as just as complicated as an eye exam but for many women, it is a very painful and potentially traumatic experience. If you have a condition like endometriosis or PCOS, a routine “small” procedure like a smear can cause days or even weeks of pain, bloating and bleeding. If you’ve experienced sexual trauma, which many of us have, then the days leading up to the test can bring immense fear and anxiety as well as the impact of the intrusive test itself.
IVF procedures can take years to heal from.
Even initial tests such as scans and examinations can cause an incredible amount of pain, as well as symptoms bleeding, IBS-type reactions, bloating and fatigue.
Yet most flexible working or sickness policies pay no heed to these women-centric recovery issues. Women are forced to fit into a system at work that doesn’t serve their needs and, eventually, many will leave jobs they are good at because they simply feel as if their health needs aren’t being met.
Many people don’t realise that the Women’s Health Strategy addresses more than just menstrual health. It acknowledges that one of the reasons why women can’t access health services in the same way as men do is because of their additional gender roles. Despite the advancements we’ve seen in gender equality over the years, women still carry the bulk of caring responsibilities and are more likely to be the victims and survivors of domestic abuse. These issues make taking time out to attend their own appointments increasingly difficult as women struggle to juggle conflicting priorities.
As an employer, having flexible working policies that allow for easy time off for GP or specialist appointments, both for the individual woman, and so that they can take the person being cared for to attend to their health or social issues, will start to reduce stress and give women space to look after their own health concerns.
For women who experience domestic abuse, work can be a place of refuge and solace. A supportive flexible working policy would be one that enables women to take time out to access specialist support, legal advice or even look for alternative living arrangements, attend bank appointments etc.
And of course, this will all be rewarded; women are attracted to employers who offer this flexibility, who acknowledge the issues we face and who can support their staff in ways that really do enable them to focus on doing their jobs without guilt, fear or embarrassment. Absence is reduced and productivity increased. Plus staff who may otherwise have looked elsewhere to companies that meet their menstrual needs will stay.
If you'd like to chat about how we can help you implement these changes and support the women's health needs across your organisation then please drop us a line. The diary is already filling up for menopause awareness month (October) so if you're toying with some training or awareness-raising amongst your teams, it's a great time to have those chats.