A government strategy to tackle the ‘gender health gap’ in England aims to ensure that health conditions and disabilities are no longer a barrier to a woman’s ability to work or have a positive experience in the workplace.
The Department of Health and Social Care has published its first women’s health strategy for England, which sets out several ambitions to improve women’s health in the workplace, among other ambitions for fertility, the training of medical professionals and access to health services.
Women live on average for longer than men but spend more of their life in poor health, which often limits their ability to work.
A survey carried out as part of the government consultation found that only 35% of respondents felt comfortable talking about health issues with their employer and only 53% felt their current of previous workplace had been supportive.
Many respondents called for flexible working arrangements and inclusive work environments that allow women to discuss health concerns openly, as well as improve managers’ and employers’ understanding of women’s health.
Access to good occupational health services, mental health support, line manager training and workplace adjustments were perceived to create a working environment that supported good health at work and helped to tackle taboos around menstruation, menopause and gynaecological conditions.
Many felt organisations needed to better help women manage the symptoms of menstrual health conditions such as endometriosis and the menopause. They should also support women and their partners undergoing fertility treatment or who have experienced pregnancy loss, the government found.
Minister for women’s health, Maria Caulfield, said: “Tackling the gender health gap will not be easy – there are deep-seated, systemic issues we must address to ensure women receive the same standards of care as men, universally and by default.
“This strategy is the start of that journey, but eradicating the gender health gap can’t be done through health services alone. I am calling on everyone who has the power to positively impact women’s health – from employers to doctors and teachers to industry – to join us in our journey.”
The 10-year workplace health ambitions set out in the plan are:
- Ensuring that health conditions and disabilities are no longer a barrier to women’s participation or positive experience in the workplace, including less well-known, undiagnosed or invisible conditions like endometriosis or heavy menstrual bleeding.
- Ensuring women feel their health issues are supported at work, including more ‘general’ health conditions such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal conditions.
- Colleagues and employers feeling better equipped to support female workers, for example via flexible working policies, evidence-based workplace support including occupational health services, and workplace policies around menopause.
- The Civil Service, NHS and social care providers leading the way in tackling taboos and supporting women’s health in the workplace.
- Ensuring colleagues and employers are better informed about the potential impact of caring responsibilities on workplace participation.
The government expects to take several actions to help reach these goals, including:
- Working to increase access to high-quality occupational health services for small- to medium-sized organisations, and to support innovation and build capacity in the OH market. This was promised in its response to the Health is everyone’s business consultation.
- Making women’s health the theme of the Health and Wellbeing Fund from 2022 to 2025. It is inviting voluntary, community an social enterprises to apply for funding for projects that can provide a holistic support offer to assist women experiencing reproductive health issues to remain in or return to work.
- Investing in the women’s health ambassador role. The ambassador will work across government to further raise awareness and tackle taboos surrounding women’s health issues at work.
- Launching a new call for evidence looking at the sorts of ‘informal’ flexibility people may need to help them live their lives in the best way they can – both at work and at home.
- Responding to its consultation on making flexible working the default option.
Women’s health ambassador Dame Lesley Regan said: “We need to make it as easy as possible for women to access the services they need, to keep girls in school and women in the workplace, ensuring every woman has the opportunity to live her life to her fullest potential.
“This strategy is a major step in the right direction, listening to the concerns of women, professionals and other organisations to tackle some of the deep-rooted issues that we know exist.”