In the first report of its kind, Public Health England (PHE) has revealed the impact of women’s reproductive health issues on the nation’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. The report combines women’s experiences, as reported in a new survey, with existing data to define reproductive health as a public health issue.
The report shows for the first time the extent of the impact these issues have on women’s ability to work and go about their daily lives and will form the basis of a cross-governmental 5-year action plan on reproductive health.
The survey of 7,367 women reveals that 31% had experienced severe reproductive health symptoms in the last 12 months, ranging from heavy menstrual bleeding to menopause, incontinence to infertility.
The hidden burden of reproductive health was particularly evident in the workplace. Focus groups undertaken as part of the study revealed that reproductive symptoms often affect women’s ability to carry out daily activities, but many conceal their symptoms from work colleagues.
Existing studies show that 12% of women have taken a day off work due to menopause symptoms and 59% have lied to their boss about the reasons for their absence. In addition, the PHE survey revealed that 35% of women have experienced heavy menstrual bleeding, which previous evidence shows is associated with higher unemployment and absence from work. Stigma surrounding reproductive health was a key concern for women taking part in the survey, with less than half of women seeking help for their symptoms, regardless of severity.
Overall, the report highlighted that women would like reproductive health issues to be normalised so that they can be discussed openly and self-managed where possible. It also underlines the need for more openness and support in the workplace around these issues.
Angela Kilcoyne, 44 and lives in Derbyshire, took part in a PHE focus group, said:
Since I was 13, I have felt embarrassed about having heavy menstrual bleeding – a health issue which has caused me debilitating pain and nausea.
I worked for years in banking, which was a very male dominated environment, and I never told my managers that I was off due to horrendous period pain. They would not have understood at all, so I would have to invent reasons month after month and soldier on. Or I would dose myself up and try and get through the day best I could, then collapse when I got home.
Reproductive health should be spoken about in the workplace in the same way as sickness or flu.
Dr Sue Mann, Public Health Consultant in Reproductive Health, from PHE said:
Women’s reproductive health concerns can fundamentally influence physical and mental well-being throughout their whole life course. Our research has highlighted that while individual reproductive health issues and concerns change throughout a woman’s life, the feelings of stigmatisation and embarrassment were almost universal.
The report reveals the need for an open and supportive approach in the workplace and in the health system. We encourage women to seek support from their workplace, and for workplace management to be aware of how reproductive health symptoms can affect women’s daily life.
A new consensus statement, which brings together 18 healthcare bodies, including Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and the Royal College of GPs, has positioned reproductive health as a public health issue that needs to be addressed. Working with partners, PHE will create an integrated cross-governmental five-year action plan, informed by the best available data and women’s real life experiences of reproductive health symptoms.
- Read the full Reproductive health is a public health Issue report
- World Health Organisation defines good reproductive health as ‘A state of physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life and implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so.’
- This report was launched after Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, called on ‘increased awareness, dissemination of information and person-centred care’ around reproductive health in her 2014 annual report The Health of the 51%: Women.