A new government strategy must not underestimate the impact of the workplace on women’s health
This summer the government is developing a Women’s Health Strategy, which it claims will address England’s gender health gap. The CSP has submitted evidence to the strategy, calling for improvements in how women experience the health and care system, both as patients and workers.
A woman’s workplace has a direct influence on her health. Historically, healthcare settings have been developed by men, for men, and you need only look at the statistics to show the impact of that. Within physiotherapy, women working in the NHS are more likely to experience stress and develop musculoskeletal problems than their male counterparts. Job security and quality shape mental and physical wellbeing, and our evidence point outs that members struggle to juggle shift work with childcare, with hundreds leaving the profession for alternative careers.
Among other issues, the CSP has called for the strategy to deliver flexible working. A good work-life balance is vital for all workers’ health. However, this balance can be particularly important for pregnant workers, and women with primary childcare responsibilities.
Flexible working arrangements – such as worker-friendly rostering, part-time work, and compressed hours – are one way to achieve a healthy balance. Flexible working reduces stress, improves productivity, and makes staff feel valued and motivated. Organisations that promote flexible working find it aids recruitment and retention. Within healthcare, this is good both for workers and patients.
There are limited opportunities for flexible working within physiotherapy. In the latest NHS England Staff Survey less than six in 10 NHS physiotherapists reported being satisfied with opportunities for flexible working.
However, NHS trade unions and employers are working on ambitious plans. The NHS People Plan challenges the NHS in England to normalise flexible working – by making flexibility requests available for staff from day one, for example – shifting the focus from individual requests to organisational policies and processes. Similar developments are expected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The CSP recommends the NHS’s efforts at raising the profile of flexible working should be monitored to ensure a consistent application for all staff, with lessons incorporated into government’s policies for other workplaces.
Workplace health & safety and risk assessments
A concentration of women in frontline clinical role contributes to gender inequalities in rates of workplace accidents and ill health. The Covid-19 pandemic has now seen an increase in the number of women not receiving appropriate risk assessments, protective equipment, or work adjustments.
Employers should be using gender-sensitive risk assessments – conducted by appropriate individuals – to support adjustments in the workplace, including for home workers. Trade union health and safety representatives have a key role in scrutinising these.
However, after conducting spot checks in NHS acute hospitals, the Health & Safety Executive recently found that even where risk assessments were conducted, employers are failing to monitor their processes and adequately protect workers.
The government must reverse cuts to our health and safety enforcement bodies, and strengthen employer liability and compliance duties.
Reproductive health is often overlooked in the workplace. Workers experiencing pregnancy, miscarriage, post-natal depression, premenstrual syndrome, the menopause and other issues often face ignorance and discrimination from managers and colleagues. Sickness policies which fail to recognise the significance of these issues also risk triggering punitive proceedings to terminate employment.
The CSP has joined with other unions to call for legislation to help tackle workplace pregnancy and maternity discrimination. New leglislation for older workers could also lead to workplaces developing and consistently applying policies that offer better support to staff experiencing the menopause.
Claire Sullivan, CSP director of employment relations and union services, says: ‘Health inequalities will only narrow if the government is willing to put women’s views and experiences at the heart of reshaping our healthcare system. But to achieve real change, women must also be active and listened to in their trade unions as we campaign together for progress.’
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