Women's Wellness in the Workplace: Actionable Insights for Employers

June 04, 2024

From both a profitability and employer satisfaction perspective, gender equity is critical to company performance, but how can this be achieved when women are not supported appropriately? Findings from the 2023 Irish Life Health of the Nation survey discovered that just 66% of females felt well informed about their health, with younger women in particular feeling much less in the know. Despite marginal gains in aspects such as representation in executive level positions (up from 17% in 2015 to 28% in 2023 according to McKinsey), women continue to face unique problems in the workplace that are not being handled effectively by employers. So, what are these challenges and what steps can employers take to better support their female workforce?

Menopause and the menstrual cycle: adjustments and destigmatisation

The characteristics of menopause can often be extreme and have a negative impact on quality of life, with up to 67% of working women reporting a mostly negative impact on their working performance. As well as dealing with this, over 37% of Irish women said that they had missed time at work due to symptoms associated with menopause, with 18% missing more than three days, according to the Menopause Hub. Aside from this, we have the perennial issue that traditional EAPs (Employee Assistance Programmes) fall short of providing employees with support for needs that are constantly changing. Employers need to take an active role in acknowledging that menopause is a reality for women over 45 and be proactive in creating access to comfort breaks, flexible work schedules, temperature control and other adaptations. The most critical action that must be taken, however, is the process of destigmatisation. Any adjustments offered by an employer are useless if women feel like they cannot ask to utilise them. This must come from the top down, with management being vocal on these issues and providing direct pathways to support.

The same applies when it comes to the menstrual cycle. Discussions around periods in the workplace still stem from a place of taboo. According to the CIPD, women commonly experience symptoms such as abdominal cramps (60%), feeling irritable (52%), fatigue (49%), bloating (49%) and low mood (47%) which will very often impact their ability to work. Employers must accept and take steps to destigmatise acknowledgement of these symptoms and their impacts on the physical and mental health of their female employees. This could be achieved by introducing a menstruation policy and by providing access to sanitary products, support and flexible working.

Childcare and “the third shift”

Exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, millions of women leave the workforce every year due to difficulties balancing childcare and work. When women remain in the workplace, they are subject to “the third shift”, which refers to the extension of domestic, family and community work that women come home to when they finish their time at the office. According to Business Insider, women with children spend an average of 11 hours a week on housework, which is 2.8 more than men with children – and 22.4 hours on care work, which is 5.6 more than men. The mental toll and added work at home that can come with pregnancy, childbirth, and the day-to-day of being a mother is frequently overlooked by employers and the EAPs they use.

Motherhood affects everyone differently and specific levels and types of support are required at each stage of the process. It is absolutely in the interests of employers to provide appropriate access to the relevant services, whether that’s onsite or discounted childcare, therapists, special education support or flexible working to support their female workforce. Iceland is a nation that champions this, with maternity and paternity leave of equal duration for the last 24 years and the trial of a four-day working week for all public companies finding that a better work-life balance and workplace equality are good for productivity. Once again though, access to these services needs to be destigmatised from the top down and these issues need to be recognised on a company level.

Underrepresentation in Management Roles: fixing the ‘broken rung’

Arguably, the disproportionate number of men in management positions compared to women offer an explanation as to why these challenges remain so prevalent for the modern working woman. The reality is that ‘the broken rung’ remains a barrier, with men dominating early promotions and women subsequently being prevented from having a clear step up to senior management positions. There is an inextricable link to women’s wellbeing here, with 25% of women feeling their progression was halted by a poor understanding of women’s health. This leads to experienced female team members quitting due to issues with mental and physical health, and means women are grossly underrepresented across companies. It is the responsibility of employers to fix the broken rung to create legitimately equal opportunities for women to progress to c-suite and management positions through rules transparency and career coaching.

Women must be more supported in the workplace, whether that’s in their progression through the ranks, support with menopause, hormonal issues and childcare, or simply in receiving equal treatment. Access to stigma-free support, the creation of a culture of greater accountability and flexible working models are concrete actions that employers can take to improve the female experience in the workplace. Ultimately, an improved experience will lead to greater productivity and fewer women leaving the workforce.

Tobba Vigfusdottir

CEO and Founder, Kara Connect

Kara Connect is the employee mental health and wellbeing solution reinventing workplace support by providing direct access to personalised and professional help for mental, physical and financial health, relationships and careers.