Mind the gender health gap in Britain’s workplaces

Our working lives disproportionately harm women’s health, according to a new study. So, what can HR teams do to mitigate the problem?

There’s a silent and growing crisis in Britain’s workplaces. Far more so than their male counterparts, women are increasingly facing health issues because of their work, often for reasons that are entirely preventable and could be easily addressed by employers.

That’s according to a study by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), which is warning of a lack of concerted effort to address the issue.

So, what’s causing this gender split? Well, several factors play into it, including the type of work women undertake; a lack of understanding about how women’s health affects their performance at work; safety equipment and working practices often designed for men; and a huge shortage of data looking specifically at women’s health.

“There is a fundamental bias within our approach to health and safety that says that men are at risk, so we need to focus on men,” says Professor Kevin Bampton, author of the BOHS study. He warns of a “structural gender bias” and says that employers and female workers alike need to “be conscious that women are more likely to bear the long-term cost of ill health in the workplace”.

How big is the workplace gender health gap?

Other biases feed into this too. Traditionally, much of the UK’s health and safety focus has been on preventing workplace accidents, and less so on the prevention of long-term illness and disease, which disproportionately affects women. For instance, according to 2022 figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 918,000 women have had their health “made worse as a result of work” – 5.8% of all women workers in the UK, compared with 4.7% of men.

What’s more, this figure is probably vastly under-reported. Bampton explains that women are more likely to “disaggregate their health as a woman from their health in the workplace, largely because in a lot of workplaces there is a quite sexist assumption that women complain about health”.

This trend also contributes significantly to the UK’s long-term sickness and economic inactivity problem, a challenge for the government as it attempts to boost productivity

Just because people have got on with it for ages doesn’t make it right

Indeed, research suggests that women are leaving the workforce in alarming numbers. Symptoms of the menopause have been found to force many women out of their roles, and a report by PwC has concluded that the extra pressures piled onto women during the Covid pandemic saw many reduce their working hours and in some cases leave the workforce altogether.

It’s all combining to seriously dent women’s prospects at work. “We talk a lot about getting women onto boards and into executive positions, and what we don’t talk about enough is the support and the infrastructure that will enable them to do that,” says Cathy Hastie, an HR consultant and an associate academic at the University of Derby.

How are our workplaces affecting women’s health?

All told, this is a major problem for HR teams to face up to. “First, employers need to listen to their employees so they can truly understand their needs,” says Leila Thabet from online healthcare provider Maven Clinic. “The best HR teams constantly have a finger on the pulse of how their people are feeling and create people programmes, benefits and policies that reflect that.”

This is, after all, at least partly the product of HR teams’ efforts to improve workplace culture and break down barriers for women. For instance, the BOHS says that more women are now stepping into traditionally male roles – without available data on how this might impact their health. Meanwhile, we’re gradually waking up to the health risks associated with those professions that have long been dominated by women.

For example, roles such as cleaning or working in health and social care often require irregular hours or rotating shifts, which have been linked with increased risks of miscarriage and breast cancer. Women are also more likely to suffer with musculoskeletal problems and mental health issues that are linked to the workplace environment. Similarly, Bampton cites the links between constant background noise and depression

“There’s been a traditional view that men go and do dangerous jobs and women do women’s work, and that somehow the caring, the cleaning, the healthcare, the office-based work, that’s not as unhealthy,” he says.

Many women are also undertaking paid work similar to activities they do at home, with many still doing the lion’s share of housework and handling any caring responsibilities. This was particularly apparent during the pandemic, when women were found to be taking on more of the burden of unpaid childcare, as well as being more likely to hold frontline roles as key workers.

What can be done to improve women’s health at work?

Despite this, much of the occupational illness affecting women is avoidable. For example, better policies and greater awareness can help businesses protect the health of their female workforce at all life stages, and save costs in the process.

This year, the UK government appointed its first Menopause Employment Champion and urged employers to develop menopause policies. Less than a quarter of UK businesses currently have such a policy, and one in four menopausal women have reported considering leaving their job due to symptoms, according to the government.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of working women have never taken time off for period pain, according to YouGov, including the 40% who regularly get severe pain that affects their ability to work.

“Just because people have got on with it for ages doesn’t make it right,” says Laura Biggs, CEO and co-founder of Women in Work, a summit focusing on the health of women in the workplace.

A report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has even found that simple changes can make a big difference to women’s health, including flexible working, allowing frequent bathroom breaks, and reasonable adjustments of rotas, uniform or equipment. This is especially important given that women are more likely to be in insecure forms of work such as zero-hours contracts, the TUC notes, and are not always easily able to take time off if unwell.

The TUC has also found that two in five pregnant women have received no health and safety assessment at work. Almost half of those who have received an assessment say that their employer then didn’t act to reduce the risks identified.

Biggs says this is a sign that employers need to have a “whole conversation around women’s health”.

“We need HR leaders to ask, ‘Is this workplace really right for women? Is it a place where women will thrive through their various life stages,’” she says. “It shouldn’t be someone scrabbling around to find what is our policy on, say, miscarriage. It should be there. And it doesn’t take long, it doesn’t have to be expensive, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Why HR teams should prioritise women’s health now

And at a time when staff retention is key, creating a culture where women feel they can raise health concerns is also a good move for employers.

“I think in the future people will make decisions on where they want to work by the way they’ll be looked after and not just by a salary,” says Biggs.

That means HR teams need to ensure there’s meaningful progress to support women’s health in the workplace, rather than just warm words. “It should be the culture and infrastructure that changes, not the women. Policy is a great starting point, but it is only a fraction of what companies need to do,” says Hastie.

The BOHS says this needs to come as part of a “national discussion of a national crisis.”

“Workplaces are showing interest, quite rightly, in the menopause and support for women’s health issues,” says Bampton. “But we need to disaggregate the notion that women’s health issues in the workplace are just about the things that are wrong with them at home that they bring to work.”

Raconteur will be at the Women in Work Summit in London on 26 September, where attendees will hear from companies including WPP, Channel 4 and the John Lewis Partnership on how to prioritise and implement health policies that keep women in work & drive competitive advantage. To find out more and to buy a ticket at a discounted rate, visit www.wiwsummit.com