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15 Dec 2022
by Dawn Lewis

The business case for gender-specific health support

Gender-specific health support isn’t only a women’s issue – it affects us all, including men

With organisations keen to create a culture of belonging that has employee experience at its heart, a holistic approach to gender health support is becoming more important.

Last week REBA, together with AXA Health, welcomed reward, benefits and wellbeing specialists to a breakfast event to discuss gender-specific health support. We considered how this fundamental element of wellbeing is continuing to evolve to not only look at menopause and fertility, but to include men’s health and the mental and financial wellbeing considerations linked to gender health.

Businesses move towards more gender-specific support

Ahead of the event, delegates were asked what stage gender health support was at in their organisation. Of the 29 respondents, just 6 said they had an established life stage support strategy in place, while 7 were in the process of implementing one. The majority (12) planned to put a strategy in place in the next 12 months, just 4 had no plans.

It is clear that many employers are moving towards offering more gender-specific health support. Menopause policies and benefits were fairly ubiquitous among attendees, but there were still reservations from some employers surrounding fertility benefits. 

Supporting men’s health is less well developed than supporting female health issues. Many employers felt that although they understood and recognised men’s health risks – suicide and mental health, prostrate/testicular cancer, sexual health – their role is more about raising awareness and highlighting existing support, especially around mental health. That could include access to the employee assistance programmes, PMI, mental health apps etc.

Overall, there were three key elements that were challenging employers on their approach:

1. For global organisations, implementing gender-specific health policies and benefits in different countries is problematic due to different cultures, local healthcare systems and a lack of global suppliers – meaning that local solutions need to be sought.

2. Post-pandemic, employees are demanding better support for their family and dependents. This is also being driven by pressures on the NHS where gaining access to some services can be difficult. In turn, some attendees said they were reconsidering what health benefits and screenings to offer to their employees.

3. Communication and simplicity in provision is still paramount. Several employers highlighted that getting messages about the gender-specific health support they offer through to line managers and employees is an ongoing issue, which makes the need for simplicity in their offering even more important.

The future of women’s health

The opening keynote speaker at the breakfast was Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Women’s Health Ambassador for England. She provided an update on the launch of the Women’s Health Strategy, which is focused on how to support women’s health at work and outlines 10-year ambitions for improving women’s health.

Regan argued that women have been disadvantaged for a very a long time, and that they need the same health considerations as men. She said that women are often viewed as ‘pregnancies’, however the amount of time a woman is actually pregnant is very small in the context of her life. 

Through the research conducted for the Women’s Health Strategy, it emerged that menstruating women were taking time off work due to their periods, did not know how or where to go for support, and felt unable to talk about it with their employer. It was clear from the research that women want access to tools and information that will help them in their daily lives.

Top tips for supporting gender-specific health 

  • Create employee networks – for new parents, those experiencing menopause etc – to enable support between employees, but also to help influence change within the business and steer policies.
  • Help people to connect by creating physical meeting areas.
  • Introduce ambassadors and advocates for your gender-specific health support
  • Get leaders and individuals involved in sharing personal stories to break down barriers and promote the available support.
  • Provide access to the tools and information employees need – such as information about menopause or fertility, or support for mental health.
  • Consider how to offer better childcare support to help eradicate pay and career gaps 
  • Communicate consistently and regularly to ensure employees are aware of support and know how to access it.

Case Study: Supporting men’s health in the workplace

Dr Shaun Davies, group safety, health and wellbeing director at Belron, offered insight into his experience of how to support men’s health – particularly drawing on his time at Royal Mail. 

He began by noting that men’s health is difficult to crack. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is now beginning to recognise the importance of belonging – something that men can struggle with. Davies gave the example of the lockdown period during the pandemic. He argued that women were better equipped to stay connected to one another than men, and so it had been really important to create physical spaces where men can reconnect with one another in the workplace.

He also emphasised the need for ambassadors and advocates to promote health services within organisations. Often it is this peer-to-peer influence about the health and wellbeing benefits available that is more effective than regular comms from the business. Leaders also have a role to play in sharing their personal stories. It not only makes leaders more human (and not just a job title), but also helps to breakdown barriers and highlight the benefits and services offered by the employer.

Building a gender-specific health strategy needs a PLAN, as Davies explained:

  • Purpose – Employers need to decide what the intent is with their gender health strategy, what is the organisational need? And how can it be made personal and relatable?
  • Linking – How does your strategy link to the business? What are you trying fix/measure/achieve and why? Are you trying to improve the employee value proposition or DEI?
  • Ambassadors – Ambassadors, advocates and allies are key to providing real-life stories that give your strategy colour and depth.
  • Numbers – The numbers provide the business case and justification for an approach. However, Davies argued that employers shouldn’t lose sight of the narrative – ESG plays well in this space, especially in relation to attraction and retention.

Improving women’s financial health

The physical health of women was not the only area of wellbeing discussed during the breakfast event. To round up the morning, a panel of employers and experts outlined how to improve women’s financial health. Alison Kanabe, SVP head of pensions and benefits EMEA at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Jamie Davidson, global director of reward and HR policy at Howden; and Yvonne Braun, director of policy, long-term savings and protection at the ABI, all offered their insights. 

The gender pay gap in the UK is hovering at 19%. This means that women have less capacity to cope with the cost of living crisis, while research shows that women are more concerned about their finances than men. In turn, the gender pensions gap is also an issue that employers need to consider.

Both Kanabe and Davidson offered some good advice to help employers to help women to better understand the pensions pay gap. They highlighted the need to not make assumptions, consistently support financial education, and nudge people into ensuring they are saving adequately for their future.

Davidson also outlined the importance of data to enable employers to identify opportunities for career progression among women. It can also help organisations understand how women are using benefits – such as pension contributions – to identify where gaps may be emerging. Pension providers also have a role to play here in educating pension members.

The panel noted that often women choose not to contribute as much into their pension, which is why education is so important. 

They also highlighted the need for a more flexible approach to work. For example, enabling job sharing to help those (not just women) who need flexibility to remain in the workforce and contributing to their pension. 

The panel also discussed DEI health checks to ensure the language used within benefits is up to date and delivering equity in provision. 

Creating an equitable playing field

We still have some way to go to create an equitable playing field for women and men in the workplace.

Lifestages such as fertility, pregnancy, parenthood and menopause, as well as problems linked to periods, mental health and financial wellbeing all impact HR, reward, benefits, talent attraction and retention, career progression as well as the employee experience and employee engagement.

That is why this topic is so vital in the workplaces of today.

In partnership with AXA Health

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