The American comedian Michelle Wolf is well-known for her jokes around what if men had periods, including the classic line: “I think if men got periods, we’d have a three-week work month.”
We may be some way off that yet, even if hybrid and compressed working weeks are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Yet, when it comes to women’s health, what was once very much an invisible, almost taboo, subject in the workplace is now much more front of mind, not least for benefits professionals.
For one thing, employers are needing to respond to the fact that women’s health is an increasingly prominent political conversation. Just last December, for example, the government awarded £1.97 million to 16 organisations across England to develop innovative schemes to improve the health of women in the workplace.
Last summer, too, the government launched a ground-breaking women’s health strategy for England, which included recognising the value of access in the workplace to good occupational health, mental health, adjustment, and line manager support.
Growing numbers of employers are taking the initiative themselves in offering tailored benefits and support around women’s health, such as for menopause and fertility, among other areas.
As Rachel Western, principal at Aon, highlights: “It has been quite driven through the US initially, so a lot of the conversations we have are with corporates that have a US central parent company, where they see these kinds of benefits as being a bit more available.
“The UK market is structured very differently because of the NHS being in place and the fact that, as a result, private policies – where benefits of course typically sit – are more focused around acute treatment of conditions and not in the primary care sector, where a lot of women’s health issues probably sit.
“But I also think, with the current situation of the NHS, with accessing GPs and all of those things, we are beginning to see clients focus on this more,” she adds.
Evolution in thinking
We’re also seeing something of an evolution in the market, or perhaps more accurately in how employers are thinking about women’s health from a benefits perspective. “What I am hearing when I am talking to other corporates is they, increasingly, are recognising that menopause is just one part of the story; periods and the menstrual cycle is actually the larger story,” explains Sharon Shier, head of product development at health insurer WPA.
Employers are looking at female health more in the round, taking a more holistic approach focused around ‘life stages’, or ensuring benefits and support are in place for each stage of a woman’s working life rather than just focusing on single conditions or concerns.
“That then has lots of offshoots around what’s ‘normal’?” highlights Shier. “Not many women have the same experience of the menstrual cycle. Then you have different ranges of complexities, including endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). And then other longer-term conditions that can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle. That is becoming really topical for lots of workplaces; how can we support women faced with whatever that monthly challenge may be for them?”
Within this, with the current cost-of-living crisis, we’re seeing more employers think about how they can support issues such as period poverty, highlights Aon’s Western. There is also a recognition that if, as an employer, you’re making this level of commitment and investment, then the ‘stuff’ around it – the workplace environment and culture, line manager attitudes and so on – also need to be aligned.
“There is no point, for example, putting in a benefit for infertility if you have a line manager who isn’t supporting you with the time off that you require to have the treatment. So, it is about doing training and education to make sure the in-house processes are working,” Western adds.
“The stats on the number of women calling in sick with ‘a migraine’ when in fact they’ve got their period is huge,” agrees Francesca Steyn, director of fertility and women’s health services at Peppy. “It is just about making sure workplaces are flexible and supportive. You can just take that day; that there is a policy in place where you can have leave, or whatever.”
Gender health focus
Supporting trans health is an important – and growing – conversation within this, Steyn also emphasises. “More needs to be done. Yes, it is ‘women’s health’ but that is everyone who identifies as female, whether they were assigned female at birth or have female reproductive organs; that is coming more into the conversation. I think there does need to be more work done for trans and non-binary people. But that focus is coming in,” she adds.
“It tends to be at the minute that providers are offering cash plan-type benefits, where they give an amount of money,” highlights Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health & Protection. “But, increasingly, we are seeing specialist companies that can offer support across the fertility journey and around gender health entering the market. This can include everything from helplines through to specific specialists, maybe some funding, and also time off; it has to be the whole package, the whole culture. I think that’s the bit we’re going to see changing,” she says.
It’s early days but we are also seeing growing interest in ‘FemTech’, or cutting-edge technological solutions. “There is a lot of investment going into things like, for example, tampons that can do smears,” points out Clark. “There is a lot of focus on the whole menstrual journey and trying to find ways to make it less difficult for females to get the checks and support they need, whether that’s hormonal or sexual health or anything to do with their body really.”
“I would hope in the future that everyone has access to women’s health, whether it be via an app or a specialised service,” concludes Peppy’s Steyn. “But that it is evidence-based and correct advice; that no one is having to go to Google anymore.
“It is great we now have a women’s health strategy, but does the NHS have the money to support it? So, I think it will be more virtual and about more companies supporting women in a virtual way; I think that is pretty much the way the whole healthcare system is going,” she adds.
Channel 4’s Hertility
Broadcaster Channel 4, which employs 1,200 people, has long been a pioneer of benefits for women’s health. In 2019, it introduced the UK media industry’s first dedicated menopause policy, followed by a parents and carers policy.
In 2021, it established what is believed to be the world’s first pregnancy loss policy and then last year began trialling reproductive health and hormone testing for employees, through provider Hertility.
This gives employees access to an NHS-approved ‘at home’ health assessment and blood test, which can highlight why someone may be struggling to conceive. This is complemented by workshops, advice and guidance on what steps to take next, and even access to specialist clinical support if needed.
“I think the important thing with all of this is packaging it so that employees can access what they need wherever they are in their life cycle, whether we’re talking fertility, pregnancy loss or menopause,” says Kirstin Furber, Channel 4’s head of people.
Taking a bottom-up, employee-led approach is also important. “We have a really active employee rep group, called 4Women, who research carefully and survey their community, which is really helpful in terms of finding out what our employees want,” says Furber.
“With the menopause policy, for example, our 4Women employee network actually led on the detail of the policy; they wrote it and the people team just contributed to it. It was very much a two-way process, a partnership,” she adds.
“The world of work is shifting; it is changing all the time. We are always thinking about what is going to be that next stage. What is the next generation coming through going to need?
“For me, the key is listening to what your employees are saying, because they are the people who know. Yes, you need the expertise but actually you also need to be thinking about the practicalities of ‘what’s going to happen on the ground?’. So, listen and bring them with you,” Furber adds.