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24 Jun 2021
by Dawn Lewis

Marissa Thomas of PwC on employers’ responsibility to support women’s health

Tackling the taboos surrounding women’s health, and the impact on women of their lifelong gynaecological health, was the central theme of a recent webinar hosted by Wellbeing of Women to celebrate the launch of their new five-year strategy.

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Marissa Thomas, UK board member of PwC and champion of women’s health, discussed how employers can help to improve the conversation around women’s health and better support those experiencing health challenges.

The responsibility to create the right environment

Thomas highlighted that women in the workplace can go through a multitude of different health experiences during their career, from endometriosis and fertility challenges or treatment, through to miscarriage and also the menopause.

“We have 23,000 people working for PwC in the UK and 45% of those are women. We have a lot of women who every day are dealing with some very challenging health experiences,” she says. “So as an employer we have a huge responsibility to create the right environment for our female employees – and our male employees as well – to allow the type of conversation we’re having today [during the webinar] to happen more frequently. But also to put the right type of infrastructure [in place] to provide support and also policies in place as well.”

She argues that employers have to focus on all areas of women’s health, especially as many employees in their organisation stay for a large proportion of their career.

Professor Dame Lesley Regan, who chaired the webinar, highlighted that menopause can be a particular issue for women, with many leaving the workforce at this point because they feel unable to cope.

“We certainly don’t want women going through menopause to stop work,” says Thomas. “We are very focussed on gender diversity and that’s from the very top of the organisation all the way down to the less tenured, and therefore we need to create an environment which means that when women do hit the menopause they don’t leave the workplace.”

Evolving workplace policies and benefits to better support women

PwC has been very successful at changing its culture over the past few years to create an environment that better supports women and where conversations around women’s health are completely open and happen every day. However, Thomas acknowledges that they’re far from done and there is still more work to do.

“There’s one change that we’re about to announce, which is our fertility treatment policy. We are going to allow our staff from the beginning of July to take up to eight days off to invest in and focus on their fertility treatment – we have never had that before,” she says.

Referring to her own experience of going through fertility treatment 12 years ago, she believes that the impact of this policy change can’t be underestimated.

“I was an ambitious Partner, very focussed on not letting anyone down as I went through the [fertility] treatment, and feeling like a bit of failure because I needed the treatment. I didn’t tell anyone,” she says.

“I’d really like to think I wouldn’t need to do that now, and in fact I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t. I would be much more comfortable sharing with the people I work with day in day out that that’s what I was going through. They could then  understand why my working pattern was adjusted, my mood, my health, my ability to be present sometimes. That shift can’t be underestimated.”

A business imperative

Getting buy-in from senior leadership for women’s health initiatives can be a concern for some reward and benefits professionals. However, Thomas says it was not an issue at PwC because it’s an organisation that is very focussed on looking after its employees and has strong corporate values that they live day-in day-out. However, she highlights that there is also a commercial imperative.

“We are focused on gender diversity and diversity more broadly, but on gender diversity – for the benefit of this discussion – there is a business benefit. If we have greater gender diversity in our workforce, we have a more positive impact on our clients, we make a greater return.

“So you take that commercial imperative and our values together and actually any time we make a policy change or aim to evolve our culture, these types of conversations and the type of sharing we’re talking about today become more commonplace – we get no resistance at all at the leadership level, at the top of the organisation and further down,” says Thomas.

Ways to support employees

The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that employers are the most trusted institution in most people’s lives. As such, employers have a responsibility to have the right policies in place, and to create the right type of environment. To do this, Thomas argues that employers need to encourage employees to engage with conversations about women’s health because nearly everyone has had or will have direct personal experience of these issues.

“We’re really encouraging people to listen more, and use all of the resources that are created by employers such as ours – whether it’s our menopause toolkit that supports women who are menopausal or pre-menopausal in terms of how you manage symptoms at work or what type of treatment you should and shouldn’t think about. We’ve also got talking forums that anyone can join where people who are going through menopause or fertility treatment and can share experience,” says Thomas.

“Employers really need to create those types of environments and do so in a way that people trust them, and encourage everyone to engage with that.”

Creating an inclusive environment where people feel safe to have conversations around women’s health is not easy. It requires constant evolution and encouragement to keep these conversations alive. As Thomas concludes: “You don’t create that and it sustains, you have to maintain it.”

Watch the full webinar recording chaired by Wellbeing of Women’s Professor Dame Lesley Regan, and featuring Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE, Olympic medallist, mother and founder of women's training app, Jennis; Izzy Judd, author of Dare to Dream and host of Let’s Talk Fertility podcast; and Marissa Thomas, UK board member of PwC and champion of women's health.

The author is Dawn Lewis, content editor at REBA.

Wellbeing of Women runs a series of expert-led webinars covering women’s health issues across the life course such as abnormal periods, fertility, pregnancy, mental health and menopause. The webinars support staff to understand and manage their own health whilst providing knowledge on key issues to help all staff support their colleagues, partners and friends.

For more information on the webinar series or Wellbeing of Women in general, please contact head of partnerships, Laura Neale.

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