It can be hard to talk about a health problem at work, particularly when it comes to women’s reproductive health. Although one in 10 women are affected by endometriosis – a debilitating condition that causes painful and heavy periods, chronic pain, extreme fatigue, bladder and digestive problems, infertility and other symptoms – many still suffer in silence.
Endometriosis is the name given to the condition where cells like the ones in the lining of the womb uterus are found elsewhere in the body. Each month, these cells react in the same way to those in the womb, building up and then breaking down and bleeding. Unlike the cells in the womb that leave the body as a period, this blood has no way to escape. It impacts all aspects of women’s lives, from their relationships to their work.
“By the time I started having problems with my periods I had worked for my employer for five years. Up until this point I had been reliable, rarely had time off sick and regarded myself as a hard worker,” says Sarah Smallbone, a support group leader for Endometriosis UK in Essex.
“Going to the toilet was agony and I suffered terribly with back pain. I was dealing with all of this whilst doing a physical job, usually on my feet for eight or nine hours a day.”
Smallbone began having to take time off, but found it hard to call her work when she was unwell. “It was very hard making that phone call to whoever the manager was at that time – usually a man who had no interest of knowing my issues,” she said.
“In my return-to-work interview, they would note the reason for my absence as ‘upset tummy’ and other such comments. This was despite the fact they knew I was awaiting a gynaecology appointment.
“During my employment with this company, I went on to have four surgeries, including a bowel resection and was given two disciplinaries for my absence. I was never offered a phased return to work and I continued in the same manual role with no adjustments.”
For her second disciplinary, Smallbone sought advice from a union and after discussion it was reduced to a warning. “I eventually went on to leave this employer, the lack of support and empathy being the main reason,” she says. “As well as being diagnosed with endometriosis and recovering from surgeries, the stress of being constantly scrutinised pushed me out.”
This story is not uncommon for women with endometriosis, who suffer from a lack of awareness, social stigma over reproductive health problems and a dismissal of their pain. Yet the condition is something employers should be alert to and consider – not just for the wellbeing of their employees, but for their businesses too.
Endometriosis is estimated to cost the UK economy £8.2bn a year in treatment, loss of work and healthcare costs.
Research by the Work Foundation has shown that under-recognised chronic gynaecological health conditions are holding-back women’s productivity too, as well as damaging their career and earning potential.
“Women’s health issues are still all too often brushed under the carpet by employers who are too embarrassed to talk about them,” says Faye Farthing, campaigns & communications manager at Endometriosis UK. “For too long, female health has been seen as a taboo in the workplace – and we want employers to join a movement that removes the stigma and helps women with endometriosis thrive at work.
“The condition can be debilitating, and may have a huge impact at work – from suffering from excruciating pain to needing frequent access to a toilet due to bowel and bladder related symptoms.”
The organisation recently organised an Endometriosis Friendly Employer scheme to help businesses, which provides information on how to support women with the condition, as well as sick pay and other aspects. Researchers are calling for better dialogue among employers, as well as better recognition of women’s reproductive health in workplace policy.
“Simple adjustments can go a long way in supporting people with endometriosis at work, and we’re proud to be working with employers as part of the scheme to address what that looks like,” Farthing says.
“Every employer should be comfortable talking about female health. And if employers want to show they are supporting their workforce, they need to show they are taking female health seriously,” she adds. “This month it’s Pink Pants Month – our annual fundraiser – and what better way to open up a conversation about female health with your workforce than over a Pink Pants coffee morning”.
Helen Mclaughlin, an endometriosis support group leader from London, was forced to quit her job due to a lack of understanding around the condition – but has now started working for a new, supportive employer.
“I am fortunate that I can be open with colleagues about my endometriosis. We have regular discussions around female health to empower and support each other,” she says. “They understand I might need to come to the office later because I’ve been doing physio or leave early to go to an appointment. There are no questions asked because my employer provides the flexibility I need to deliver my job. My colleagues know that I can still get the job done.”