There is a growing awareness within Government and among employers of the importance of having a cohesive and supportive approach to women's health issues such as periods, menopause, endometriosis and other gynaecological conditions. To mark Endometriosis Action Month 2023, we consider the impact of endometriosis in the workplace and what employers can do to support employees who are living with it.
What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a chronic condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows elsewhere within the body, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes and other organs in the pelvic cavity. Its symptoms are wide-ranging, and can include chronic pain, heavy bleeding, fatigue, sustained inflammation and, in severe cases, infertility and organ dysfunction. Endometriosis can therefore have a significant, and somewhat unpredictable, adverse impact on the wellbeing and quality of life of those affected by it.
Yet awareness of endometriosis remains extremely low. An estimated 1.5 million people in the UK have endometriosis, making it the second most common gynaecological condition. Despite this, the charity Endometriosis UK has found that 54% of the population do not know what endometriosis is, with 45% of women unable to name any associated symptoms.
Workplace protections for those with endometriosis
There is currently no legislation expressly dealing with endometriosis in the workplace. However, subject to the severity and duration of their particular symptoms, a worker living with endometriosis may have a "disability" for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. If so, they will benefit from certain workplace protections, such as the right not to be discriminated against because of their disability, and a requirement that their employer make reasonable adjustments to facilitate their ability to perform their role.
Though endometriosis appears to be climbing up the Government's agenda, it remains to be seen whether legislation will be enacted specifically to assist those with endometriosis. In October 2020 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Endometriosis released its report Endometriosis in the UK: time for change, which contained several recommendations, including education in the workplace and ensuring access to statutory sick pay. However, the Government has yet to commit to implementing any such measures.
What can employers do?
Just as all experiences of endometriosis vary between individuals, there is likewise no one-size-fits-all approach that employers can adopt to support employees with endometriosis. That said, employers may wish to consider one or more of the following:
Training and education: Employers can introduce staff training on endometriosis. Employers may understandably prioritise training for HR and managers, although there is also value in rolling it out to the rest of the workforce so that awareness can be cascaded widely. For instance, employers could invite an external specialist to deliver a firmwide talk on the subject and/or facilitate workshops where those affected by endometriosis can share perspectives and experiences with colleagues. Employers can also direct employees to external resources such as the charity Endometriosis UK, and ensure that any guidance or information is appropriately signposted and easily accessible.
Policies and practical changes: Employers may wish to update their workplace policies to deal expressly with endometriosis, whether by adding a section on endometriosis to one of their existing policies (such as their Employee Wellbeing policy) or by implementing a standalone Endometriosis policy. Among other things, such policies can help ensure consistency of treatment; guide managers as to best practice; and signal to staff more generally a commitment to supporting those with endometriosis. Policies aside, there are also practical adjustments employers can make to the workplace to alleviate the symptoms of those with endometriosis, such as regulating the temperature of the environment and altering uniforms so they are more breathable and lightweight.
Culture: Employers can strive to establish a workplace culture in which employees feel able to discuss endometriosis openly and without judgement. An employee network could be set up through which those impacted by, or interested in, endometriosis can share experiences and ideas. Management can also make clear that they are open to receiving feedback on how satisfactorily they are handling endometriosis in the workplace, to help inform and drive change.
If you would like more information on how best to manage these issues in your business, please get in touch with your usual Mishcon de Reya contact or with Laura Penny in the Employment team.