Take Action on Women’s Health

28 May is International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Here’s how you can create gender-sensitive occupational health policies.

Stress, burnout and depression are increasing year on year. A worrying trend for companies, says Dr Niri Naidoo, clinical operations executive at Bankmed medical aid, because “stressed workers are absent from work three times as often as their more relaxed colleagues”.

And women are the hardest hit. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the USA (NIOSH) says women are more prone to suffer from work-related anxiety and stress disorders. “The reasons are multiple, but one leading explanation is that women are more likely to serve as the primary caregiver for children or elder family members, increasing exhaustion and stress and exacerbating existing health conditions,” say the study authors.

South African trends are no different. Statistics SA says women spend double the time on housework than men do, and the burden of childcare mostly falls on the mother. This leads to an 11-hour workday in many cases, resulting in burnout, stress-related health issues and declining productivity.

This anxiety, depression and fatigue also increase women’s risk of getting hurt at work, according to a 2018 study from the Colorado School of Public Health. Researchers found that nearly 60% of women who were injured on the job reported a behavioural health condition before the incident occurred, compared to 33% of men.

These factors need to be given consideration when creating occupational health policies. “Because of the different jobs women and men do and the different societal responsibilities they have, occupational risks take on gender-specific patterns,” says Seiji Machida, director of the Programme on Safety and Health at Work at the International Labour Office (ILO) in Geneva.

Here are some guidelines from the ILO on creating effective policies:

-Include legislation for violence, discrimination and harassment;

-Address gender inequalities in employment patterns;

-Consider gender differences in risk management, including societal roles, stress, and psychosocial hazards;

-Take occupational risks for pregnant or lactating women into account.

Discrepancies in work-related claims

Musculoskeletal disorders are among the most common health impairments in the workplace, and here, too, gender differences play a role. Women tend to suffer more from upper-back and upper-limb pain, while men suffer more from lower-back pain – partly because of biology and partly due to different roles in the workplace. Worryingly, research by the International Labour Office has shown that men’s compensation claims for these disorders are accepted almost twice as often as those from women. There is a general disbelief that these disorders are work-related when women claim for them, say the researchers. by D. du Toit

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