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  • Steph Murphy

Women’s Health across the Life Course and the Workplace by Sarah Jewell

Scholars argue that workplaces are often built around a fantasy of an ideal worker who is fully committed to paid work with no interferences from family or personal life, who is permanently productive and available 24/7. The majority of working women will at some point during their working life, whether or not they choose to pro-create, experience the physical and emotional realities of their reproductive health, albeit to varying degrees. The realities of women’s bodies, given women undergo fairly predictable hormonal changes and cycles throughout their life course, is not supported in workplace by this ideal worker fantasy.

Whilst workplace policy considers pregnancy and maternity, there tends to be a lack of formal policies relating other areas of women’s health, such as menstruation and related health conditions such as endometriosis, the (Peri-)menopause and complex fertility journeys. These experiences are widespread; for example 10% of women of reproductive age suffer from endometriosis; an estimated 20-25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage in the UK; 1 in 7 couples suffer from infertility issues and an estimated 25% of women experience severe menopause symptoms lasting up to 10 years. Despite evidence that women’s health can impact women’s labour force participation, career progression and workplace experience, as well as their well-being, these issues are often surrounded by stigma and taboo. Providing provision, and support for, in the workplace for women’s health needs can improve women’s working lives, their productivity and well-being, as well as ensuring organisations retain their talent.

How to support women health’s in the workplace?

In recent times women’s health in the workplace has received increasing attention and greater recognition. There are some useful existing resources providing workplace guidance and best practice for complex fertility journeys, pregnancy loss and menopause for example; although such workplace policies are not yet commonplace. Furthermore, often women’s health issues are considered in isolation and any cumulative effects across the life course tend to be ignored. Whilst areas of women’s health may be interlinked, some issues may be more likely experienced at different points across the life course, coinciding with different career stages. For example, menustration issues are more commonly experienced by younger women, pregnancy and fertility issues likely to coincide with early to mid career and menopause mid to late career (when women may be looking to move into senior and leadership roles). By the time women reach menopausal age they may have experienced the effects of earlier women’s health issues in the life course. Therefore it is important to consider the potential accumulative effects of women’s health across the life course to implement effective policies and practices to support women at work and their well-being. Having an overall workplace women’s health strategy that is fully inclusive of women and their reproductive health care needs over their life course, is a good place to start.

Whilst discussions are taking place and things are heading in the right direction but there is a lot more to do to understand issues faced across the life course, their impact on women’s working lives and how workplace policy can better support women and their well-being. Here at the University of Reading we are examining some of these issues through our ‘Accommodating Diversity in the Workplace’ research initiative, with a view to taking a life course perspective.

About the author

Sarah Jewell is a Professor of Economics at the University of Reading. Her current research interests lies in the area of women's health and the workplace. She is currently leading a research initiative titled 'Accommodating Diversity in the Workplace '.

You can find out more about the research initiative via its website and follow updates on Twitter.

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