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The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911 throughout
Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. The following 113 years have been characterised by small successes and landmark victories alike, but there is still a long way to go.

A key area of focus is the workplace, where research shows there are still significant inclusivity gaps. For starters, too many women are locked out of employment, often due to lack of flexibility or struggles returning to work after maternity leave. The International Labour Organization says that the current global labour force participation rate for women is just under 47 per cent. For men, it’s 72 per cent. In some regions, the gap is more than 50 percentage points.

Once in the workforce, disparities remain. The gender pay gap is well-documented, but beyond that, research shows that women do poorly compared to their male counterparts when it comes to other areas of reward and remuneration. The consequences of this are significant, particularly from a mental health perspective.
A 2022 Deloitte study showed 53% of women reported higher stress levels than in 2021, with 46 per cent of women saying they felt burned out.

On the other side of the equation, there are extraordinary benefits and opportunities for employers who prioritise creating a safe, happy, and healthy workplace for women. On a global scale, the impact could be astronomical. In 2020, the World Bank found that potential gains from closing economic gender gaps could unlock a “gender dividend” of $172 trillion for the global economy. But there are also plenty of benefits at the company level including a more motivated and loyal workforce, better employee attraction, better governance, and boosted reputation.

Where businesses can make a difference

The great news is that there are plenty of things that your business can do to truly move the needle on equality.

One significant area of focus must be health. The World Health Organization and McKinsey recently published
a report showing that despite living longer, women spend 25 per cent more of their lives in poor health. It also found that addressing the women’s health gap could potentially boost the global economy by more than $1 trillion annually by 2040.

We know that medicine and medical care is often designed for men, by men, and that women’s issues such as periods and menopause are catastrophically overlooked. For instance, the CDC states that four out of five pregnancy-related deaths in the US are preventable and black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Through equitable provision of health care benefits, businesses can help to bridge the gap.

Of course, women’s issues are not all reproductive, and there are plenty of other healthcare issues companies must be aware of, such as cervical cancers, ovarian cancers, and osteoarthritis. Given the alarmingly high number of women that are stressed at work, mental health support should also be high on the agenda.

How to build a benefits system that supports women

It can be hard to know where to start, but taking a proactive approach, tailored to meeting the needs of female employees could improve performance, talent attraction and retention, and reduce rates of absence due to sickness.

Key areas to include:

Period-related support

Better education means that should an employee experience a problem with their periods such as painful cramps or a condition like PCOS, they can access medical assistance as early as possible. It is often necessary to see a specialist to diagnose these conditions and private medical insurance can speed this process up.

Wellbeing support, from mental health to gym discounts, can help to combat PMS as well as assist with managing other health conditions – for instance, exercise can help with the pain caused by endometriosis.

Fertility

Infertility or difficulty conceiving can be caused by a range of health conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fibroids, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Many of these conditions are common and have other complications that may affect well-being and work performance.  Women may also seek fertility treatment to conceive in a lesbian relationship, as a single mother by choice, or as a surrogate mother.

There are plenty of practical steps you can take to support women through fertility problems, related conditions, pregnancy and parenthood.

These include:

  • Reviewing existing private health insurance policies and considering whether employer-funded support can be offered

  • Offering paid maternity leave

  • Offering miscarriage leave

  • Offering flexible working

  • Allowing time off for appointments which may need to be at specific times and at short notice

  • Signposting to support networks and charities

  • Arranging line manager training

Perimenopause and menopause

Women can begin experiencing signs of perimenopause at different ages, often in their 40s but sometimes during their mid-30s. Some may experience significant impacts such as depression, or osteoporosis caused by a weakening of the bones as hormone levels change.

One report found that women who are going through the menopause between the ages of 50 and 55 take an average of two months off work because of their symptoms, while women who experience early menopause (before they reach 45) take four months off.

Help by communicating and raising awareness to let women know they are in a supportive working environment.  Ensure your line managers have had appropriate training and are aware of organisations that you can signpost to employees to.

Tackling stress is another key step you can take to minimise the impact on your business. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can also be very useful as they provide 24-hour confidential advice, information and counselling.

Making small adjustments to the working environment can improve health and help to lessen menopause symptoms. i.e. different equipment and desk fans can also be helpful. Medical assistance can also be key. For instance, it is possible to include hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in private medical insurance coverage. Enhanced flexible working can also make a difference.

Female cancers

Cancer treatment can seriously impact health, well-being and ability to work. Common side effects can include nausea, fatigue, diarrhoea, constipation, infection, alopecia, anaemia, fertility issues, pain, sleep problems, memory and concentration problems, and bladder and bowel problems. Undergoing cancer treatment can also mean becoming extremely clinically vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19 and can also have a significant emotional impact on an individual.

National awareness days can be used to remind employees of the importance of self-checking and attending screenings, while internal events, webinars and training on female cancers can also help with early detection.

Salary Continuance Insurance means that an employee can receive a lump sum trauma payment upon diagnosis, receive daily benefits if in hospital and will receive a percentage of their salary (usually 75 per cent) while they are unable to work. Group life means that your employee’s dependents will receive a lump sum if they die. These will reduce the financial stress that often comes with a cancer diagnosis, giving your employee improved peace of mind at a very difficult time in their life.

The author is National Head, Health and Benefits, Howden India Insurance Brokers. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost_’s views_.

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