In her shoes: Women's health at the workplace

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Women experience specific occupational health problems as a result of differing exposures to risk factors, varying social situations, and certain biological differences in body size, fat composition and reproductive systems.

In many cultures today, working women are still expected to have the dual responsibilities of their home and children in addition to their job. This makes it a challenge for women to balance between their professional and personal or familial commitments. Single mothers experience even more difficulties in balancing work, family and home.

Women also tend to have different types of jobs to men. “For instance, they are more likely to do part-time, contract or temporary work due to familial commitments,” says Dr Ben Choey, obstetrician and gynaecologist with SBCC Women’s Clinic at Clementi Central. “Being so, they may have lower incomes and receive fewer healthcare benefits from their employers.”

Some of the more common female health conditions include work-related musculoskeletal injuries, such backstrain due to bad posture or carrying heavy loads, and carpel tunnel syndrome due to repetitive wrist strains, says Choey. “Women also have higher incidences of anxiety and stress disorders and migraines.”

“Balancing work and family tasks gives women more stress, and the long-term health effects of stress results: poor appetite, frequent sickness, increased blood pressure, fatigue, and increased susceptibility to infections,” he explains.


Gender-sensitive approach

While men still outnumber women in the workforce, it is becoming increasingly important to recognise the differences between women and men, and take a ‘gender sensitive’ approach to health and wellness at work.

American Express research, presented at the 10th National Conference on Workplace Health last year, shows that women’s average presenteeism (on the loss in productivity due to health reasons) is 40% higher than men’s. “Thus, from a business perspective, it is clear that improving women’s health will reduce the health risk and thereby improve business productivity,” says Ashwani Dahiya, Vice President – International Health & Benefits, Global HR Analytics, American Express.

With a large female population in the workforce at American Express, there is naturally a greater focus on women’s health issues. While the wide range of health and wellness programmes cater to all employees, irrespective of age, gender or band level of job, some of them are customised to target specific health risk profiles, such as cervical cancer screening for women.

“Besides including mammograms and pap smears in our health screenings, we also ensure our women employees have adequate medical cover,” says Dahiya. “In addition, we offer our employees fitness subsidies that cover expenses for gym memberships, pilates and dance classes, and organise weekly yoga sessions in the office; all of which are very popular with our female employees.”

While improving women’s health and quality of life can boost their productivity, with enhanced health standards, employers may even lower their health care costs, says Choey.

“For instance, wellness programmes, including preventive-care programmes, can help employees make healthier choices and detect health conditions before they become serious and protracted,” he explains. “Programmes that address women’s health needs in particular, such as healthy pregnancy, heart disease and cancers will benefit them.”


Improving female workers’ health

HR can offer programmes and services that help women improve their health and wellbeing. These may be in the form of wellness programmes that address women’s needs.

“These may include smoking cessation, nutrition and weight-loss programmes,” says Choey. “HR can also organise sessions that educate women about having a healthy pregnancy and also increase their cancer awareness.”

Preventive health screenings can also be conducted at the workplace. While general screenings for both male and female workers can be organised (those concerning body mass index, bone density, cholesterol levels, heart rate, blood pressure and diabetes), annual pap smear screening to detect cervical cancer and breast cancer screening can be done specifically for female employees.

“Discount schemes can be offered to female workers to encourage them to take up a health screening package,” says Choey.

Taking into consideration its diverse workforce, Huntsman Asia-Pacific decided to implement a flexible benefits programme earlier this year.

“During a focus group session last year, a female employee had raised concerns about the standard health screening package that was offered at that time,” explains Hans Han, Head of Compensation & Benefits, Asia-Pacific, Huntsman Asia-Pacific.

Through the flexible benefits programme, employees now take ownership of their personal health and wellness. “They are empowered to evaluate and choose the health screening package that is most appropriate for them,” Han added.

In addition to the flexible benefits programme, Huntsman Asia-Pacific also has a ‘Workplace Wellness Programme’ which offers workshops in areas such as aromatherapy, ‘self massage for relaxation’, and food therapy.

HR can also increase awareness of common female health problems, preventive health measures, and healthcare resources through comprehensive online information dissemination. “Another thing HR should look into is offering female workers reasonable healthcare insurance to cover their basic healthcare needs,” says Choey.

Pregnancy vs productivity

Perhaps the biggest differentiator between a male and female employee in terms of health and wellness is the fact that female employees may become pregnant. Physically-demanding work, tasks that involve prolonged standing, shift and night work, and work fatigue can be associated with specific pregnancy risks. These include increased chances of premature births, hypertension and pre-eclampsia. “Employers should be aware of the increased risk of occupational hazards, especially pregnant women at their workplace,” says Choey. “The additional demands of pregnancy affect a worker both biomechanically and physiologically.”

Understanding a pregnant employee’s restrictions and encouraging safe working environmental conditions is important to reduce the chances of injuries at work, while not compromising productivity. Choey says pregnant workers are recommended to:

•        Limit continuous standing to two hours or less;

•        Alternate between sitting and standing;

•        Limit forward reaches to less than 40 cm;

•        Eliminate reaches above shoulder level;

•        Restrict lifting and lowering to less than 15 kg;

•        Eliminate exertions below waist height;

•        Limit work weeks to a maximum of 40 hours; and

•        Try to avoid rapidly rotating shifts and night work.

In some of its international offices, American Express has worked with global vendors to design a customised pregnancy care programme for female employees, the spouses of male staff.

“Key benefits include access to specialists, ante-natal classes, fitness and nutritionist counselling, pregnancy risk assessment, and specific discounts on tests and diagnostics,” says Dahiya.

“Women who have gone through the programme have commended the time and effort they saved as there was easy access to experts and pertinent information at each stage of the pregnancy.”

Specifically in Singapore, American Express provides its women employees with medical cover for pregnancy, including pre- and post-natal care. In addition, the bank provides flexible working arrangements for expectant mothers.



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