Why women’s health matters: Companies must take note

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe
Natasha Hatherall-Shawe
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As International Women’s Day comes around again for 2023, this year's official theme is ‘Embracing Equity.’ We’ll be seeing many conversations about the global gender pay gap and equal workplace opportunities for women, unconscious bias and leadership representation amongst other necessary issues and nuances, but as an employer with an exclusively female workforce, for us, we wanted to make a direct change and start a step change regionally around a particular challenge faced by all women at various life and career stages, and it’s time for other companies to take notice. Recognising the very real complexities and challenges faced by women in their daily lives is something that needs to be addressed and whilst a long time coming, there is no better time than now for other companies to take note.

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At my communications agency, we have announced paid leave and new policies for staff suffering from health challenges around menstruation, menopause, fertility and maternal health. Announced officially last week, we know that this is a first of its kind company policy for the region. Staff members can avail of up to six days of menopause (and menstrual) leave per year, which is not part of the employees' personal or sick leave. Those undergoing fertility treatment, including those wishing to freeze their eggs, will be given flexible and unrestricted paid leave to allow them to attend medical appointments.

Globally, this is also a current topic in both the private and the governmental sector. Spain has recently passed a law which allows women with especially painful periods to take paid menstrual leave from work. In a European first, the law allows women to take three days of paid leave, which can be extended to five in case of debilitating cramps and aftereffects.

Creating a welcoming and inclusive culture is something that is a must for all employees and of course, not just women. However, the idea that women should be suffering in silence with health challenges that have seemingly been ‘taboo’ and unrecognised as real medical needs is archaic and something we must tackle collectively as a society and as business owners.

It’s vital to note that retaining employees has positive financial implications for any business. It is always less expensive to keep people than to replace them. This is one important factor in offering enhanced benefits for any organisation.

For the uninitiated, it could be easy to imagine benefits such as menstrual leave as being something that could be taken advantage of, but this misses the point entirely. This benefit does not mean that all female staff would take time off every month. It is recognition that an individual's experience with menstrual symptoms and challenges are not the same as the next woman. To be uncomfortable at work, in pain, struggling with endometriosis for example is not conducive to a productive day or week. If that individual is better off working from home, or indeed at all, or needing to take time away for medical appointments, then this is what we are formalising without question – again - as a direct medical and healthcare need.

Others might question the financial cost to business of flexible policies, yet the price to the company of paid leave is minuscule in the bigger picture. The cost of paid leave against operations and productivity is far outweighed by the positive loyalty and goodwill garnered. Truly, ignoring the needs and wants of your workforce in 2023 is one of the most expensive mistakes you can make.

It’s widely accepted now that many symptoms linked to menopause can have a negative impact on employee health, and whilst still being discussed and even debated around the world, a UK study in 2021 found that 23 percent of women whose menopause symptoms had left them unwell had then gone on to leave the workforce altogether because of this. As we all try to encourage more women into leadership roles and see better board representation and more - doesn’t it make sense to support and retain these women at this vital career stage, and keep all those years of vital experience within our businesses?

Offering flexible work arrangements only benefits society as a whole in the long run. For those with caring responsibilities, this does not just fall on the shoulders of women, and if it does, it should not. Inclusivity is what we should all be striving for - for the benefit of all, as well as the company bottom line.

After our recent company announcement, I received 1000 CVs in 24 hours directly from women who have experienced some terrible working practices against their own healthcare needs at non-progressive companies. Nobody should be suffering in silence or feeling like this is a HR conversation that cannot be had. Whilst days like IWD are important in making noise around all gender-based issues for women around the world, it should never be tokenistic or reduced to a PR exercise on just one day. We have proven that making real change is easy, it is appreciated, and it is necessary. With a focus on things that truly matter to women at work, and genuinely affect them.

Global anecdotal and factual research is clear. The median age of the female workforce is rising, and yet more women are dropping out of the workforce from the ground up post pandemic - this is usually due to economic considerations alongside a lack of deemed flexibility for caring responsibilities. Fertility rates are decreasing - many couples will need assisted support here going forward, and an older workforce means that health challenges around the menopause cannot be ignored amongst capable women within the relevant life stage bracket. For businesses and again, society as a whole, we have to recognise the benefits that the female workforce brings, and alongside that, support them transparently, where they really need it.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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