Women's health is not just a women's issue. It's a societal issue that affects local communities and the economy. While women have made major headway towards equality, many areas of their lives require additional support to be made truly equal to their male counterparts. One of those areas is in the workplace.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, women make up 58% of the workforce. It turns out women are biologically built differently than men. We face unique safety and health issues at work – reproductive health hazards, more work-related cases of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), double the stress levels compared to men, and higher incidence of violence and harassment.
Aftershocks of the pandemic
In October, our center had hosted a webinar on the topic of women, health and work. Over 2,000 people registered to attend, indicating there is not only a strong interest in this topic but a great need to better support women’s health at work. We discussed the unique challenges that women face when it comes to their health and their jobs. Our two guests (Kate Johnson and Priankya Dwivedi, PhD) shared personal experiences that impacted their and our lives – cancer, stress, stereotypes, emotional burdens and caretaking. We witnessed how the impact of these changes and others were only exacerbated by the pandemic. We saw a major shift in more women deciding to leave their jobs.
Managing the demands of family and the demands of work enhanced the hard equation between income loss and cost of care, also between taking time and being productive and earning. Even when we have employers that pay attention and foster workplaces that have generous benefits like parental and medical leave, women don’t always advocate for ourselves in taking what we need. Even when we’re sick, even when we’re struggling. One of the many things COVID did was highlight the intersection of business and psychology that affects our health and our expectations in these blended roles.
In my own life, this topic is a constant. I’m the mother of two amazing young kids. I want to be there for them in every sense. I’m maturing as a career professional and I want to be there for my job in every sense. The tensions of trying to manage the expectations of home, family, work, and my own self mean that my health often suffers consequently. I don’t know one other woman in the same boat who calls it easy.
While we may think times have changed, they haven’t. Caregiving disparities undermine our ability to have the same impact at work compared to men. A 2022 report shows that women are five to eight times more likely than men to have their employment affected by caregiving responsibilities. Mothers more than fathers experience interruptions that set them back in performance and career growth.
The value of women and work
To fully support women and their health in the workplace, it is essential for employers to recognize the value of women in the workplace. We represent a significant economic force and provide valuable consumer insight. We excel at the soft skills required for business leadership and collaboration. And data supports the concept that greater diversity of all kinds in the workplace fosters innovation.
Work also serves a positive function for women. Employment for women is essential to their economic security, social equality, and a robust and sustainable economy for all. Work also allows women to develop and maintain a sense of community, self-esteem needs, and ultimately, self-actualization.
What is needed to support others
The baseline for today’s workplaces has been set. Employers need to offer comprehensive health insurance plans that have vital services like preventive screenings, contraception, maternity care, and well-woman exams. Employers need to embrace and promote flexible work arrangements such as adjustable schedules and flex-work arrangements to provide flexibility for women to address health concerns without compromising their work obligations.
Every employer, whether you are a large tech company or a family-owned business, needs to be acutely aware of the female employee needs including resources, education, and encouragement for them to prioritize their health and seek care.
I can assure you that even in the “perfect” healthy workplace, there are women who have access to health services who are still lacking the support (and assurance) that they can utilize them without conciliation.
What is needed to support ourselves
This goes for you, me and others. We can take simple steps to improve our health in the workplace:
- Take a sick day! If your employer offers sick leave, you are in a position to use it when you need it. There tends to be two types of people.
- Those that do use it (sometimes when it is or isn't needed) and those that don't. For those that don't, tap in and give yourself a good break to recover.
- Normalize talking about health in the workplace. If we can talk more about our health, others will be more likely to reach out when they need help.
- Advocate for yourself. When it comes to choosing work over our health, we often do. Remember that the work usually can (and does) wait. Check in with your needs often and honestly.
Let’s keep the conversation going in our own lives and jobs today. Be aware, ask questions, and advocate for equity in all you do.
Watch the Health Links® webinar from October 18, 2023, Women’s Health and Well-being: Strategies for the Modern Workplace, featuring speakers Kate Johnson, OLY, marketing director, integrated brand, content, sports partnerships at Google, and Priankya Dwivedi, PhD, assistant professor of management at the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.
Written by Liliana Tenney, DrPH, MPH, director for outreach and programs at the Center for Health, Work & Environment and assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health.