Associate Director of HSE Recruitment and Executive Network Group, Laura Aucott recently sat down to participate in NEBOSH's Online Conference which set out to explore the topic of women within the Health and Safety space and whether it's possible for female HSE professionals to 'have it all'. To be safe, happy and healthy in their profession.
The session opened with Laura solidifying that the number one priority within Health and Safety is keeping people safe, however, it is still of paramount importance to keep employees happy and healthy whilst within their roles.
Laura then briefly touched on how the pandemic had "opened our eyes" to the physical and mental well-being of the HSE workforce. According to a study by Oxford University's Business School - 13% of employees are more productive when they work in an environment that increases their happiness.
Inequality still does occur in both companies and culture, and this can be intensified when combined with ethnicity, sexuality and disability issues.
Laura then outlined each of the three pillars of the topic and broke down each in detail:
In 2021, a survey from the women's global health organisation found that 3/4 of women across the female healthcare workers profession felt that ill-fitting PPE hindered their ability to do their work thoroughly, and made them feel as if they were simply an expendable worker and not valued by their company.
Women from different ethnic backgrounds seemed to struggle more with PPE fitting. For example, those who wear headscarves or larger afro-styled hair weren't taken into consideration when PPE was distributed amongst the workforce.
Laura then reiterated that this survey was focused on AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) professionals within the healthcare industry but felt the sector tends to be more female denominated, however, we can only assume that the issue is even worse in more male-dominated and hazardous fields such as construction.
Female PPE in high-hazard industries are also years out of date. Research that was conducted in 2009/10, showed a large disparity between suitability for women compared to their male counterparts - however, there seems to be little research done to indicate that this has been rectified.
Transgender professionals should also not be ignored - putting pressure on PPE companies to focus less on making female ranges of safety clothing, and working on creating a range of clothing that is more inclusive in its sizing, and engage in more regular fit testing so that everyone can feel included no matter what their ethnicity or gender identity.
Laura then explained that PPE isn't the singular issue when it comes to women's safety in the workplace - She references a book by Caroline Credo Perez, named Invisible Women, which dives into how statistics and the "data gap" has been harming women in the workplace for years. An example of this is in the medicine industry, which does not test and research new drugs and medications based on gender. Most are tested on men, as a general rule.
Laura then wraps up this section by stating that safety within the workplace is set to a male default setting, which can put women at a disadvantage in this regard.
Employee happiness is usually measured through regular workplace wellbeing surveys and engagement.
When it comes to happiness - many things can impact us at work.
Laura then explains how the increase in the availability of flexible working and hybrid options has had a major impact on employee happiness.
"I know this was a huge impact for us within our company – we had always been of the view that recruitment is a social job and we needed to be in the office to do it, but COVID forced us to re-assess and realise that wasn’t strictly true. And after two years, the impact has stuck and many more companies are now offering people the ability to work from home or work more flexible hours. In fact, the office of national statistics said that 84% of workers who had to work from home during the pandemic have continued to work in a hybrid fashion this year".
Since the pandemic - ENG has seen an upturn in diversity on recruitment shortlists. This seems to be a direct response to this new way of working.
Laura also touches on the need for more equal paternity and maternity leave across companies.
Major studies have shown that having children is the main contributor to the gender wage gap. Maternity leave, although extremely beneficial, can have a detrimental effect on women's careers.
"Data coming out of Europe on life satisfaction however has started to show that increased paternity leave has a real positive effect on both mother's and fathers’ happiness and wellbeing and can help start to close the gender wage gap. Having specifically earmarked paternity leave ensures a more equal division of home tasks, helps women return to the labour market sooner and can help reduce the income disparity between mothers and fathers, all of which have a significant impact on happiness levels".
"Data coming out of Europe on life satisfaction however has started to show that increased paternity leave has a real positive effect on both mother's and father's happiness and wellbeing and can help start to close the gender wage gap. Having specifically earmarked paternity leave ensures a more equal division of home tasks, helps women return to the labour market sooner and can help reduce the income disparity between mothers and fathers, all of which have a significant impact on happiness levels".
According to several studies, women appear to suffer from stress due to their professional lives more than men do. The study indicated that 79% of women deal with this kind of issue, compared to 66% of men.
"There seem to be a number of reasons for the increased stress levels in women, things like the idea that women have been socialised to say yes more and therefore tend to take on more work than they potentially may have the capacity for, the gender pay gap, and the stress of dealing with inequality in the workplace, and the issues caused by lack of work-life balance".
Menopause is also a key topic when discussing women's health in the workplace, and Laura delved deeply into this topic.
Laura refers to a study conducted by the CIPD which found that 59% of menopausal women had found themselves negatively affected at work - with more than 900,000 admitting that this had caused them to leave their roles with their companies.
Laura then alluded to her PowerPoint presentation which showcased some interesting statistics from the Office of National Statistics, on women suffering from menopause and how this affects their work-life.
Menopausal women are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce;
The average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51. It can be earlier than this, naturally or due to surgery or illness. And symptoms may start years before menopause, during the perimenopause phase;
According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM), nearly 8 out of 10 menopausal women are at work;
3 out of 4 women experience symptoms, and 1 in 4 could experience serious symptoms;
One in three of the workforce will soon be over 50, and retirement ages are now 68;
There have already been successful employment tribunals against employers.
Laura then asks the question - Now that companies have taken great strides when it comes to women's emotional wellbeing at work - does that leave men at a disadvantage in this case?
"In 2014 the Movember foundation commissioned research related to men’s mental health, it’s actually a really interesting report I would encourage everyone to read, it is available from the men’s Health Forum, and this report showed that traditional talking therapies favoured by most companies were mostly accessed by women (62% women compared to 38% male) although the majority of suicide deaths are men (78%)".
Does PPE need to be gendered? Can we create a more inclusive way of keeping workers safe?
Can we consider underlying bias in statistics, and take less of a one size fits all approach?
Can we create more fluid working environments, with more flexible hours?
Can we measure happiness by staying consistently engaged with our workforce?
Can we look at sharing parental leave, to create more harmonious home and work environments?
Can we create more inclusive environments to help create more diverse leadership teams?
Can we look at creating sensible policies around menopause to help retain our ageing workforce?
Can we ensure that our well-being policies are equally effective for all, and are we measuring that?
Laura then signed off her presentation by stating that if women feel that HR departments can answer "yes" to those questions - "then I believe we really are on the way to creating workplaces that will truly allow us as women in industry to be safe, happy and healthy".
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