Reproductive health is slowly climbing its way up the rungs of the boardroom agenda, as a host of formidable campaigners have raised their voices to speak out on the impact of reproductive and hormonal health issues, such as miscarriage, infertility and menopause, in the workplace.
From law firm Burgess Mee this year hiring Britain’s first “Fertility Officer” as a port of call for employees to discuss family planning to companies including Channel 4, John Lewis and Monzo introducing ten days’ compassionate leave for pregnancy loss for employees. And Vodafone and Diageo, amongst others, launching menopause policy campaigns, companies are beginning to take progressive and decisive action. But there is still work to be done.
Government vision reveals gender health gap
While these conversations and policies are gradually entering the mainstream, the Government’s Vision for Women’s Health strategy revealed that thousands of women still feel that their health presents a barrier to their productivity and career progression. Following a survey of nearly 100,000 women, it was revealed that women’s health conditions are detrimental to their mental health and productivity, with the stigmatisation of reproductive health causing individuals to suffer in silence.
The results are in
To supplement the pillar of the Government’s strategy focusing on women’s health in the workplace, we wanted to home in on personal experiences of employees facing reproductive and hormonal health challenges, specifically. And so, we launched a survey in conjunction with Cityparents to ascertain insight into individuals’ experiences, thus informing the cultural changes and policy needed to reset the dial on attitudes towards reproductive health.
Our survey revealed that while many companies are hitting the headlines with progressive initiatives, there is still a stark gap in reproductive health policy. Nearly half of employers (48%) have no official policy to support employees undergoing IVF treatment, even though one in six couples now require the help of a fertility expert to conceive. Furthermore, only 4% of employers provided appropriate training for HR directors or line managers on fertility treatment, with one respondent describing their experience of fertility treatment as “incredibly painful and lonely” due to their company having no policy in place.
When it came to those facing miscarriage, only 12% of employees surveyed were allowed time off before it becomes a legal right at 24 weeks; with one in five pregnancies ending in miscarriage, providing paid leave at any gestation is essential in supporting women through pregnancy loss.
And for staff facing menopausal symptoms, over 60% said that they would feel uncomfortable talking to a line manager if this was impacting their performance at work. Almost 90% of employers didn’t provide any menopause policy – shocking when a study in 2019 found 14 million workdays were lost in the UK each year due to menopause symptoms.
Taboos and stigma remain
Therefore, while many companies are making noise in this space, we haven’t seen the impact of this policy trickling down into personal experiences, but now is the time to turn up the dial. With COVID-19 accelerating change in approaches to employee wellbeing and workplace culture, health is suddenly at the core of HR policy, and we need to harness this climate of change to recentre reproductive health.
Reproductive health should be a key part of diversity and inclusion initiatives, with fertility treatment being essential for couples facing infertility and the only option for same-sex couples and single women hoping to start a family.
Our research found that many employment contracts group fertility treatment with cosmetic surgery, suggesting that fertility treatment is a lifestyle choice, as opposed to being the only option for many women and couples looking to conceive. Therefore, no workplace policy on fertility treatment denies these individuals the choice that everyone should have a right to start a family in the knowledge that they can enjoy family life while maintaining financial stability and achieving career progression.
Resetting the dial
Having consulted the data, we have identified three critical strategies employers can use to help close the gender health gap: providing services, training and education, and policy. The provision, or subsidisation, of fertility treatments may be an option reserved for larger firms; however, funding provision, where possible, makes a critical difference in lifting the extreme financial burden of fertility treatment.
Secondly, training for HR directors and line managers to support and broaden their understanding of the impact of fertility treatment, miscarriage and menopause on both the physical and mental health and wellbeing of employees is critical in providing reasonable adjustment options and fostering a culture of transparency.
Many women reported feeling too scared or embarrassed to share details of their medical challenges with line managers. Having a port of call as a “fertility officer” or offering firmwide training days and sessions on these issues can further progress towards destigmatising women’s health.
Finally, a tangible policy that acknowledges the impact of reproductive health will ensure that staff don’t feel that their reproductive choice will act as a detriment to their career. Providing compassionate leave for pregnancy loss before the 24-week mark, while not a statutory right, is a great place to start, and many firms are beginning to adopt such policies. Fertility treatment, however, is less acknowledged, with no statutory rights for employees undergoing fertility treatment, with many having to use annual leave or unpaid leave, and some leaving their jobs due to a lack of support in the workplace for fertility treatment.
Closing the gender health gap
Centuries of gender inequality have resulted in a gender health gap affecting millions of women. Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research has been dedicated to reproductive health, even though one in three women will experience severe reproductive health issues in their lifetime. We need to address this urgently by eliminating the taboos and stigma surrounding women’s health issues and breaking down the barriers to allow women to access care without feeling embarrassed.
Employers and HR managers have the potential to make up for the failings in the healthcare system that have allowed women to fall through the cracks. Opening up the conversation, providing education and training, and implementing tangible policies can ensure that women’s reproductive health and wellbeing are supported in the workplace, allowing women to thrive and contribute to their employer and the nation’s prosperity.