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How workplaces can better support women with menstrual health issues

Sarah Darwen, founder of women’s health consultancy Halycon, supports organisations to champion and raise awareness of women’s health issues in the workplace - and she believes businesses need to do more to support women at work.

Around seven in 10 women are struggling with their periods at work – that’s according to women’s health expert Sarah Darwen, who advises and transforms businesses to better support women with their health in the workplace.

Endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), heavy and painful periods, menopause, infertility and IVF are just some of the health issues that affect women at work.

Sarah was inspired to act after her own difficult journey with endometriosis.

“I was diagnosed in my early twenties and I went down the traditional treatment pathway, got a bit of alleviation from the symptoms, but nothing major,” Sarah said. “Then I was offered a hysterectomy at 24-25. “I did not want one and so I looked to alternative medicine and I’ve managed my own endo since then.”

It was through self-treatment that Sarah found ways to ease her symptoms and reduce flare-ups – and she soon started sharing this with others. In 2008, she set up her own holistic therapy business treating women and teaching them how to manage their own symptoms. But she also wanted to help change employers’ attitudes towards women’s health issues.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

“When I was going through with my treatment and diagnosis journey. I had a really good manager,” Sarah said. “She allowed me to work flexibly, to take time off for appointments. She trusted me to manage my workload. Then I changed employers and they were not understanding at all.”

This second, more negative experience, inspired Sarah to work with organisations to make women’s health part of the workplace conversation. This was bolstered by her own research with her clients, who were often not getting the support they needed at work to deal with their health issues.

“We carried out a survey in 2021 amongst our individual clients (all of whom are going through the menopause or have problems with their periods) and the results were astounding: 100% reported taking unnecessary time off work, 100% reported lying about the reason they were off, 86% said their symptoms impacted their work, and 84% had left or thought about leaving jobs they enjoy,” Sarah said.

“About 18 months ago, the women’s health strategy was released, and I thought this is such a good opportunity to help more women through their workplaces. So I started going into workplaces and educating them on women’s health generally, and just talking about periods.

“Despite common belief, we don’t talk about periods enough especially in the workplace. Period shame is still very real and is causing women to call in sick when simple measures would keep them at work. Citing issues like ‘migraine’ and ‘bad tummy’ is also prevalent (through fear of being judged) which does nothing but mask the issue.”

Making better health policies isn’t just a positive for women – it’s good for business too. Having and open and supportive culture on women’s health could save organisations huge sums of money in sickness leave – plus it boosts the performance of their employees.

So how can businesses improve their policies and support women with their health at work?

“Start with an outward show that women can talk about their periods,” Sarah said. “Offering free period products in the toilets is a really good start, as it lets women know you’re thinking about their periods and it’s supportive.

“Buying into things like Endometriosis Month, and using staff newsletters to share staff journeys and stories. Just making staff aware that other women are struggling with the symptoms. Right the way through to support – employers spend a fortune on employee wellbeing, just make sure the people they’re employing to do that are well-versed in women’s health and it is meaningful support.

“And then the policies, flexibility is key. Considering the physical environment, do you have enough facilities, not just toilets but for washing, or for women who wash out menstrual cups.

“Just have conversations about it, talk about periods. And don’t gaslight someone who is talking to you about period problems because it takes a lot for us to talk about it at work.”

Sarah works with businesses on their women’s health policies and practices, including: training managers on how to support staff and the impact of menstrual issues on employees; running staff awareness sessions on women’s health issues and how to minimise the impact of symptoms at work; and self-treatment e-Learning programmes to help employees manage symptoms.

To find out more about Sarah and Halycon, visit: halcyontherapies.co.uk

Bex Bastable
Bex Bastablehttp://bexbastable.co.uk
Bex is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.
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