Curating a culture that helps women stop suffering in silence 

Women’s fight for equality dates back over a hundred years. While Sylvia Pankhurst might have rejoiced to know that women living with the menopause are the fastest-growing demographic in the workplace[i] , her joy would be tempered by the slowness of that workplace to accept that equal rights aren’t the same thing as equal needs.


Although many companies focus on employee wellbeing in general, when it comes to women’s health in the workplace, specific support is inconsistent at best. A few examples: In the UK, 48% of organisations have no official policy in place to support employees undergoing IVF – and 90% don’t provide any kind of menopause policy[ii]. And that’s for the obvious women-centric health conditions. Women also face unique mental health challenges[iii], with research showing that women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders and young women are almost three times as likely to experience a common mental health issue as compared to males. Women are also at higher risk of serious diabetes complications[iv] and more likely to experience serious side effects from cancer treatments[v].


Add to that the business impact of women’s health-related absences, which is clear. A 2019 study found that 14 million workdays were lost to the UK each year due to menopausal symptoms and nearly 60% of women have taken time off to tend to health issues[vi]. Yet a quarter of these women reported that they were uncomfortable disclosing to their employer why they needed time off. When it comes to fertility-related absence, more than half of women don’t disclose their IVF treatment to their employers[vii], in part due to fear of losing their jobs or having their commitment questioned.


While evolution in legislative and organisational policy may be glacial, there is an opportunity for workplaces to take the lead in demonstrating a commitment to their employees’ health needs. Many are: Channel 4 has launched reproductive health and hormone testing for its employees[viii], Co-op offers paid time off for fertility treatments[ix] and Bristol Myers Squibb[1] was named Menopause Friendly Employer of the Year in 2022 for its holistic approach to menopause-friendly initiatives[x].


A catalyst for organisational change


In the same way that the global COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to re-think or create their approach to hybrid working, a closer focus on women’s health requirements makes the need for a changed approach obvious. Policy can’t drive culture by itself, but it can change behaviour. It’s one of the variables which influences whether an organisation is doing the right thing when it comes to women’s health, but it isn’t a panacea. Even without a policy framework, creating a culture of openness can help ensure that women feel safe to discuss their needs and collaborate with their teams and leaders to prioritise their health outcomes while minimising business impact. This all starts with the relationship between employees and managers. Case in point: Almost two thirds of women said discussing IVF with managers or employers made their experience easier to deal with[xi].



Making business more human is the cornerstone to achieving empathetic dialogue on sensitive subjects. Empathetic leadership is linked to higher performance[xii] and there is a raft of research and training courses available to encourage this behaviour. But when it comes to women’s health, more specific coaching and guidance may be needed. In issues that touch an employee’s most personal concerns, managers may fear saying the wrong thing and choose to say nothing at all.



As business leaders, try implementing these simple steps to begin cultivating a culture of open conversation and trust:


  • Help managers learn to listen and listen to learn: Having an open-door policy and being able to talk to managers and HR personnel about health concerns is key. Any health condition can be a sensitive and personal issue. And for conditions like the menopause, symptoms can manifest themselves in a visible way, creating greater embarrassment. Asking open questions can encourage people to share in a trusted environment and confidential conversation.[xiii] This isn’t easy. It takes thought and preparation on both sides to have authentic conversations of this nature, and it isn’t in everyone’s natural comfort zone. Dialogue can be further complicated by personal life experiences or if the participants are different genders.
  • Share stories and build peer support: Co-op’s chief executive shared her own experience of the difficulties in fertility treatment, which paved the way for the creation of policies to benefit all employees[xiv]. Encouraging women, especially at senior leadership level, to speak up and become their own health advocates will help create the environment that normalises the conversation around women’s health. Setting up employee networks along the lines of ERGs, where employees can share experiences and provide mutual support, also helps to normalise the conversation.
  • Educate on women’s health: Providing workplace education on women’s health or life transitions – the implications of fertility issues, for example – for employees (female and male) can help everyone be better informed. Greater understanding of the issues at a theoretical level can help when the implications become personal to a team. Any education also needs to guard against unconscious biases developing, or a backlash perception of discrimination[xv].

With the continued increase in organisational focus on wellbeing, the time is right for a specific focus on women’s health. Maybe Sylvia Pankhurst would approve of the progress being made after all.


United Minds, part of the Weber Shandwick Collective, is a consultancy dedicated to making business more human. We help organisations navigate the people side of change including restructures, mergers, acquisitions and other significant transformations.


We are proud to be a lead member of The Weber Shandwick Collective: Women’s Health and to launch The Women’s Health Indicator. Developed by data analysts and behaviour experts, this proprietary product informs and identifies specific gaps in women’s health by analysing and assessing thousands of data points measured across society, media and policy.


Our team’s blend of psychology expertise, change management experience, strategic thinking and creative communications capability, means we can help organisations navigate complexity, position the change and avoid the pitfalls.


[1] Weber Shandwick client