Endometriosis - how this hidden disease illustrates the gender health gap

The implications for employers of underdiagnosis in women’s health

Endometriosis - where womb tissue grows elsewhere in the body - is a cause of extreme pain and can lead to infertility, but it remains one of the hardest conditions to diagnose. In fact, it’s often referred to as the ‘missed disease’ due to underdiagnosis and an overall lack of knowledge about effective treatment. Now considered to affect as many as one in ten women of reproductive age, NICE only issued official guidance to GPs in 2017, and it can take up to 8 years to receive a diagnosis in the UK. There are numerous stories of women reporting severe pain and being tested for cancer, kidney disease, and gastroenteritis… all of which return negative results, leading to a situation where the sufferer is made to feel that ‘it’s all in their head’, or that symptoms are being exaggerated.


This can, in part, be attributed to the fact that the severity of symptoms associated with the condition can vary, and many of those symptoms are similar to more common conditions. Endometriosis UK have published a useful pain and symptoms diary which can be of real practical help in gaining a diagnosis - download it here.  Although endometriosis is not recognised as a disability, it is a chronic condition (which means it cannot be cured, only managed).

From an employer’s perspective, endometriosis seriously affects sufferers, and not just physically. The pain and fatigue the condition causes can lead to depression, poor mental health, and other gastrointestinal problems. The physical symptoms can in themselves be incapacitating, preventing an employee from being present at work. Along with physical pain, the mental impact of the condition can be extremely hard to deal with, and it is, therefore, essential that you work with your employees to determine how best you can support them.

Examples of workplace support for staff with endometriosis include;

  • Flexible working conditions
  • Support with appropriate resources and guidance
  • Provision of safe spaces for discussion or timeouts
  • Raising awareness of the condition amongst staff
  • Encouraging take-up of mental health support

Raising awareness can help staff learn how best to support someone with endometriosis and can also help foster a culture where they may feel more comfortable talking openly about their condition. Employees will feel more comfortable asking for different working arrangements to help with endometriosis if you are open about your policies and discuss them with people in your workplace.

Why the gender health gap is holding back the economy

The dismissiveness of women’s pain is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing effective diagnosis and management of health conditions. A variety of studies have shown that women experience poorer outcomes in many areas of healthcare, with evidence showing that the gendered health gap in the UK is the largest in the G20. Women are less likely to visit their GP, receive less health monitoring, and take more potentially harmful medication. Perhaps most tellingly, women are far more likely to experience common mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, which are themselves exacerbated by social and economic factors - a situation that worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted access to healthcare, with women disproportionately affected as a result.

Endometriosis is just one example of the health gap when it comes to diagnosis of serious conditions. Heart attacks, autism, ADHD and autoimmune conditions (like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis) all remain underdiagnosed in women, either due to lack of funding, gender bias (as a result of prejudice or stereotyping), or - perhaps most worryingly - because most women present with different behaviours and symptoms to men, and conditions are often missed or misdiagnosed as a result.

Globally, the health gap equates to 75 million years of life lost each year due to poor health. Closing this gap would help 3.9 billion women lead healthier lives and would also boost the worldwide economy by $1 trillion dollars, simply by giving women greater capacity to contribute both economically and societally.

What can employers do to help close the health gap?

With women experiencing poorer healthcare due to shortcomings in access or treatment, the most obvious impact in the workplace is that female employees are more likely to be off sick, have longer absences from work, or be working with chronic pain - all of which affects productivity. For employers, recognising that this disparity exists is paramount, not least in terms of the potential limitations it can have on the ability of women in your organisation to work, perform, and progress.

 

Easy ways for employers can support women in the workplace

  • Understand how your current policies are seen by women in your business
  • Ensure healthcare is available for your lower earners and part-time workers (many or whom will be women)
  • Introduce strong mental health provision (55% of women say they have worked while mentally unwell)
  • Understand why reproductive health can affect women at all stages of life (including periods, pregnancy, fertility and menopause)
  • Introduce a caring culture - the tone from the top is crucial to ensuring women can speak their minds
  • Providing training to your managers (including unconscious bias training) to ensure women’s health issues are better understood

 

Become a company that’s leading the way in supporting women’s health

Helping women thrive at work should be a priority for employers and is key to achieving a fully inclusive workforce. Simply breaking down the stigma around women’s health conditions by encouraging a more transparent culture can help address unconscious structural inequalities and can make a real difference to the everyday working life of your female staff. Women in the workplace are constantly facing specific health challenges and too often feel that this can be overlooked by employers. There is a massive opportunity for business owners to make lasting changes through the adoption of simple, common-sense policies that will be valued by the women in your business.

If you’d like to understand how our Occupational Health services can provide you with the strategies you need to support women’s health in the workplace, contact us today by calling 0191 512 8220.

For more information on how we can support you, please call 0191 512 8220, e-mail wellbeing@ukim-oh.com, or complete the form on this page - our specialist team will be in touch to help with your query.


Are you an employee?

If you have any health conditions or concerns that you are worried may impact your performance at work, we would encourage you to discuss them with your employer in a transparent and open manner. They may be able to provide support or a referral to our Occupational Health services (like Physiotherapy or Counselling) to help you manage your health at work.

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