Parliamentary debate on workplace support for endometriosis

On 9 February 2022, the House of Commons held a parliamentary debate to discuss the current lack of support for employees who suffer from endometriosis. The disease affects one in 10 women, and those assigned female at birth, from puberty to menopause. Around 1.5 million people in the UK are living with the condition and experience symptoms such as chronic pelvic pain, bladder and bowel problems, heavy and painful periods, fatigue, depression or anxiety, abdominal bloating and nausea, and difficulties getting pregnant.

The symptoms and impacts of endometriosis vary significantly between individuals, with some experiencing limited side effects and others suffering with severe symptoms, which impact daily activities. For many, flare-ups pose huge difficulties as there are no triggers or patterns which individuals can prepare for and manage.

It can be daunting for an employee to share details of their health, particularly with sensitive conditions like endometriosis, so it’s important to create a culture of open communication and support. Doing so allows employees to ask for the help they need, which in turn contributes towards increased productivity, satisfaction and retention. Three key areas have been identified of providing the most benefit to endometriosis sufferers:

Endometriosis has the potential to be classed as a disability under the Equality Act (2010) if it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. As such, employers have a legal duty to consider reasonable adjustments to support all employees and could face claims of disability discrimination if they don’t. The reasonable adjustments recommended by Endometriosis UK include reducing workloads; allowing extra breaks; providing special equipment; giving time off for medical appointments, including when these are last-minute; and adjusting absence trigger points. Holding regular welfare meetings with the employee is the best way to identify what support measures would be the most effective.

Adopting an accommodating attitude to flexible working arrangements also allows employees with chronic conditions like endometriosis to feel confident and comfortable in the workplace. On days where they experience a flare-up of symptoms, allowing homeworking means an employee can maintain normal output and avoid a loss in pay but work in conditions that alleviates pain and discomfort. Not only does this benefit the employee, but employers can also reap the rewards of not having to find last-minute cover or face wider problems associated with long-term absences. Other useful flexible working arrangements include hybrid working, changes to working hours, changes to start/finish times and providing lighter duties or amended responsibilities.

Those who suffer from endometriosis can often need wider support for other associated conditions, such as mental health problems and infertility. Research has found a positive correlation between endometriosis and infertility, however the exact cause or link as to why this happens is uncertain. Similarly, support for women’s health in general is significantly lacking in many UK organisations. This includes adequate measures to alleviate period poverty and difficulties caused by the menopause, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and menstruation, as well as infertility and IVF treatment.

Introducing a fertility policy, which incorporates the support measures available for individuals who face difficulties in this area, can be greatly beneficial in helping affected employees feel confident and comfortable whilst at work. It also raises awareness of the struggles employees must manage, to help colleagues and managers know how to provide compassion and care.

Additionally, the British Medical Association has been calling for the introduction of period products in all NHS staff toilets, saying this is a basic necessity to ensure dignity at work. It further highlighted that providing period products could play a huge role in the wellbeing and comfort of their staff; this should already be at the forefront of employers’ priorities yet many fall short of their duty of care requirements in this area.

In 2020, Scotland became the first country to make period products free for all in schools, colleges and universities. MPs unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, which placed a legal duty on local authorities to ensure free items, such as tampons and sanitary pads, were available to anyone who needed them. The Bill says ministers in the future can place a duty on other specified public service bodies to provide similar measures. However, there is still more to be done to support workers in the private sectors and across the UK as a whole.

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