The hidden workplace conditions

Kathryn Kendall

04/12/2017
Categories: HR, Employee experience, Wellbeing

10th October marked World Mental Health Day. Individuals and organisations across the globe came together in a combined effort to remove the stigma from mental health conditions and explore ways of better supporting these within the workplace.

Over the past few years we have seen the understanding and education of mental health and its impact upon employees dramatically improve. Individuals have reported feeling more able to speak out about their mental health conditions, and are able to access an ever-increasing pool of opportunities for intervention and support. While there is much more to do, we are a world away from where we once were.

With such rapid progress, we could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that surely all employees are now starting to receive the support they need at work. But what about other hidden health conditions which are perhaps less understood? In particular, what about those which solely affect women?

Despite the many steps forward made when it comes to gender equality, we are still very much working within a patriarchal society. Even the most forward-thinking organisations are battling against hundreds of years of inbuilt thinking that workplaces should be designed and inhabited by men.

We all know the statistics which show us just how much we still need to do to ensure true gender equality within our boardrooms and our wider organisations. There are a number of things which have to fundamentally shift in order for this to change. We need to stop valuing predominantly male traits, such as logic and decisiveness, over those which are more likely to be found in females, such as receptivity and empathy. We need to move away from a fixed, rigid working pattern which completely fails to take into consideration the needs of those with caring responsibilities outside of work – those who are still, predominantly, women. And we need to start to think about what else our non-male employees might need from their employer in order to be able to deliver maximum productivity at work.

The problem we have is that we live in a society which is typically embarrassed to talk about issues rather tweely grouped together as ‘women’s problems’. This month, Bodyform became the first sanitary protection provider in the UK to feature red ‘blood’ in their adverts for sanitary towels, as opposed to the sanitised blue liquid which has been used in all sanitary protection adverts up until now. It is symptomatic of our attitude towards periods, the menopause, endometritis, and any other conditions which are solely the preserve of women.

Much like mental health though, we need to start talking about these things, and particularly how they affect women at work. The more we do, the more we remove the taboo. The more men start to understand just how far reaching the impact of these can be on their female colleagues; and the more women stop feeling like they just have to struggle on through.

I have been fortunate to have not personally experienced painful periods or endometritis. (As an aside, it’s perhaps a sign of how deeply ingrained the unspoken taboo is when it comes to discussing menstruation or associated conditions at work that I even considered whether it was appropriate to share my personal experience!) I have, however, seen friends and colleagues literally crippled by period pains, doubled up in agony and barely able even to move, let alone function. Dependent on their employer, they will have at best got a vague degree of sympathy… at worst a total lack of empathy and an expectation that they simply ‘man up’ (oh, the irony of the phrase) and get on with things. Would they have got the same response if they were suffering from appendicitis? It is highly unlikely.

We have the same challenges when it comes to supporting women experiencing the menopause in the workplace. Because it is a condition that the majority of the workforce will not have personally experienced (either because they are male, or because they are women who are still to go through it), we tend to bury our heads in the sand over it and assume that it is something which can simply be ‘got on with’.

The reality is very different. With both genders working later in life than they did previously, there could be more than four million employees experiencing the menopause actively at work in the UK. For up to 15% of these employees, the symptoms experienced are so severe that they can be debilitating. These may include depression and anxiety, severe hot flushes and difficulties in sleeping, all of which can impact both on day to day performance and overall quality of life.

So, what’s the answer? As is often the case with HR, there is a risk we can get caught up in our own red tape. Should we be providing period policies and menopause leave? Probably not. If we do so, we’re treating the symptoms, not the cause. We shouldn’t be putting in place processes which single out the women in our workforce and make them feel even more isolated than they may already do. Instead, it’s about education. Let’s learn from the strides forward we’ve made in the area of mental health. Let’s educate our workforces – that’s our whole workforces - about the impact some of these hidden conditions can have on women. Let’s ensure we encourage a culture of empathy and respect. Let’s aim to reach a point where no woman feels that she has to suffer in silence; that she can’t speak up. And, by doing so, let’s work to make our organisations a better place for everyone to work, regardless of their gender, and regardless of their hidden conditions.

Our friends at E.ON are blazing the trail for employers to tackle the menopause at work.

Women are working longer, so it’s inevitable that more and more employees are going to experience menopausal symptoms while still at work. E.ON quickly recognised the need to implement a wellbeing system to help their people through this often very difficult phase.

So, what did they do? They developed a guide to make sure managers are fully educated around the subject of menopause. The guide will ensure that E.ON’s managers are well-equipped to support colleagues who are experiencing menopausal symptoms, or those who are helping family or friends with this transition.

As well as developing the guide, there has been a huge internal campaign entitled #awkward in which employees are encouraged to engage in and openly discuss those diversity issues which are often swept under the carpet, or are considered ‘difficult’ or ‘embarrassing’ to talk about. In a conscious effort to remove the taboo around the menopause, E.ON are encouraging a company-wide support network in which colleagues can feel safe and supported throughout the difficulties of the menopause without the additional worry of how it will affect them at work.

This drive for awareness is just one part of an extensive campaign by E.ON to improve and maintain the health and wellbeing of their people. As a founding member of the Time to Change mental health pledge, and the first UK company to sign up to the TUC’s Dying to Work charter, E.ON are clearly pioneers when it comes to protecting their employees’ health and wellbeing.

“We’re delighted to become Britain’s first menopause-friendly energy company. Through colleague engagement we hope to raise awareness about the menopause by providing clear information and guidance for all line managers and their employees and by encouraging all colleagues to talk openly about this natural phase in a woman’s life.”
Dave Newborough, HR Director, E.ON UK

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