Time to Break the Silence: Career Impact of Women’s Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace
Women face different health and wellbeing challenges at different stages of their lives - from reproductive health and gynaecological conditions to the fatigue caused by care responsibilities and, in very unfortunate cases, a multitude of issues associated with domestic abuse. Despite many women struggling with these issues, most remain silent, as these topics are too often seen as taboo in society and in the workplace, especially in Asia. Such silence can adversely affect women’s physical and mental health, as well as their workplace performance.
Why Are Women Silent?
“[Menstruation] is a complex hormonal process that has been, since the beginning of time almost, shrouded with shame and mystery.” - Olivia Cotes James, CEO & Co-Founder from Luuna Naturals
Many women are “trained” to hide their menstruation from others as early as in their teenage years. It is common for families and schools to avoid discussing menstruation openly with their children and students, with this behaviour carrying on into the workplace. Growing up thinking this is a taboo subject results in women and girls hiding when they get their periods and being embarrassed to talk about this in public. This behaviour becomes a “habit” which continues in the workplace, not just when they are facing menstruation challenges but also other wellbeing challenges such as maternal health, infertility and domestic abuse.
When women are in the workplace, they are reluctant to let their employers and colleagues know about their health conditions as they fear workplace discrimination. Even when they suffer severe symptoms such as cramps, they rarely take leave as they do not want to be seen as lazy. Based on a survey taken by 470 women from 26 countries, about half of them think that their employers will treat period pain as an invalid reason to take leave. Such misconceptions are even more common in Asia.
According to Community Business' research, 2019 Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia, women make up close to half of the workforce in most markets, but less than a third of leadership roles across Asia. Many employers and managers do not have enough knowledge on the wellbeing issues specific to women, it is vital that these issues receive more attention. This is especially relevant to male-dominated environments, as continuing to overlook women's health and wellbeing can reinforce the fear of workplace discrimination.
The Business Drivers for Enhancing Women's Wellbeing in the Workplace
Various pieces of research have found that women’s career development can be negatively impacted by their health and wellbeing. For example, about half of the female respondents in Community Business’ Caregiving in Asia survey agree that caregiving responsibilities have a negative impact on career development/ambitions; around a quarter of menopausal women may consider leaving work due to their menopause symptoms.
Employers should create a safe environment for all employees that supports them to manage their wellbeing concerns across their career which are nuanced for women. With sufficient support for their women employees’ wellbeing, companies can enjoy competitive advantages such as:
Implement flexible working policies that allow women adjust their work hours or workdays according to their health conditions or care-giving responsibilities will boost their productivity when they are back at work. They can better focus on their projects with more appropriate support.
Greater Employee Loyalty:
People are the most valuable assets to a company. If you want high-performing talents to stay on board, ensuring they feel supported and creating an inclusive working environment has competitive advantages.
Better Brand Profiling:
It is undeniable that being responsible and inclusive can help a company gain better reputation. This is especially true if a company is willing to focus on women’s wellbeing, an important yet commonly neglected issue.
Research from Forrester shows that over half of adult online consumers consider a company’s values when making a purchase. A more responsible and inclusive company is more likely to build a stronger customer relationship and own a wider customer base.
Time to Break the Silence
Companies should play a proactive role in making a change by:
Taking the Lead:
Employers and senior management can take the lead by listening and discussing with women employees about their wellbeing and concerns.
This helps them better understand the challenges women are facing so that they can suitably adjust company policies and provide support. Additionally, they can be role models for other staff by visibly supporting female colleagues through their unique wellbeing challenges.
With more knowledge about women’s health, misunderstandings can be minimised and male employees will be in a better position to empathise. Skills such as opening up conversations and the ability to listen and comfort others help to improve psychological safety in the workplace, providing a sense of confidence to employees when they know they will not be rejected, punished or embarassed when they speak up.
Reviewing and Adjusting Policies:
Companies should review their policies and make proper adjustments, to support women with health and wellbeing challenges, and eliminate invisible barriers to women’s advancement.
Listening, understanding and supporting are key to enhancing wellbeing. Community Business is keen to explore this topic in detail and would like to produce a new podcast: Women’s Health & Wellbeing at Work in Asia – Breaking the Silence. This is a series of frank discussions that seeks to break with the stigma and taboos associated with women’s health, wellbeing and their relationship with the working world.
About the author
Written and read by Eliana Lam, Associate, Marketing and Communications at Community Business