Five common mistakes for leaders supporting women’s health at work

With the recent rejection of the menopause bill by the UK parliament, a discussion into women’s health in the workplace has opened up on a larger scale than ever before.

A YouGov study recently found that 62% of Britons support menopause leave for women, demonstrating a clear demand for a change in healthcare policy. 

It is not just menopause that requires support in the workplace. Other painful and chronic health conditions such as endometriosis, PCOS and even severe period symptoms also must be considered as they impact performance and wellbeing. Supporting women’s health at work has clear commercial benefits. 

But what are leaders currently doing wrong, and what needs to change? 

  1. Not updating outdated frameworks/policy

Many of our perceptions of health are based on traditional ideas that tend to universalise wellness, often through a male lens. The historic gaps in scientific research into women’s health has translated into a lack of representation of female health conditions in policy.

If leaders fail to address the way in which gaps in policy may be leaving women unsupported and unprotected at work when suffering female health conditions, the engagement, productivity and general wellbeing of staff could be at risk. 

Leaders should start not only by examining policy but also their own preconceptions and unintentional biases. Particularly as men are often overrepresented in leadership roles, addressing misconceptions and a lack of understanding within themselves is key to being able to recognise where policy needs to change. 

  1. A lack of psychological safety 

Psychological safety needs to be at the foundation of organisational culture. For employees to feel safe, they need to feel that they can speak honestly and openly with leaders and management without fear of negative consequences. 

Particularly when employees are struggling with something that is private or feels embarrassing, psychological safety is essential for employees to be able to express their needs with leaders. This is key for women navigating health conditions that are often seen as taboo to discuss.

A great way to build psychological safety is through conversations without an agenda. When leaders continuously make an effort to check in with employees and express interest or concern outside of professional conversations or the weekly to-do list, employees will recognise that they are valued and will find it easier to speak honestly in future without awkwardness.

  1. A lack of education of the wider workforce

It is not only the responsibility of the leader to educate themselves, but this must also trickle down into wider company culture. To prevent misunderstandings or negativity towards women who are navigating complex health conditions, learning tools must be in place. 

This doesn’t mean making women talk about their personal experiences, but just encouraging a wider understanding of the health implications beyond the stereotypical and why they should be taken seriously. For example, the menopause is more than hot flashes and mood swings. Insomnia, anxiety, fatigue and brain fog are all common symptoms that must be considered. 

Overt judgement or criticism from other employees when women are navigating complex health conditions must not be tolerated to prevent reinforced feelings of shame that women are so often made to feel. Taking a stance against this will ensure women feel protected by management. 

  1. Not making support accessible 

Leaders need to really question the value of the support services that they have in place. Yes, they are on offer, but how easy is it for employees to get access? How long does it take to get help? Are they signposted heavy enough to ensure swift access? Do managers understand the options available to their team and the role they play in the process?

Ensure that swift access isn’t being blocked by layers of bureaucracy that are likely to deter those in need seeking help. 

  1. Not making yourself available for employees 

Often leaders will assume that all employees have the confidence to come and speak with them when they need something, however this is not the case for everyone. It is important to make it clear when and where you are available. 

Having regular office hours, whether in person or virtual, are crucial to demonstrate commitment to being there for employees. Listening with curiosity and empathy is the best way to make employees feel valued and understood. Even when you do not have the answers, being there to listen and signpost appropriate support is an important role for leaders to fulfil. 

While wellbeing is at the top of most leaders agendas, it is important to ensure that our definitions of wellbeing are broad enough to include female health into policy and understanding. As women make up half the workforce, it is crucial to provide support and protection at work for those suffering from common, often debilitating female health conditions through avoiding common mistakes.