One in 10 women suffer from endometriosis, where cells similar to those lining the womb grow elsewhere, usually within the pelvis. Each month these cells react in the same way as those in the womb, building up and then breaking down, but they have nowhere to go, resulting in inflammation, pain and scar tissue. It is a chronic and potentially debilitating condition, can only be definitively diagnosed by surgery, and there is no cure.
There is a real difference between a healthy menstrual cycle and endometriosis. An employee may be experiencing a range of symptoms and health difficulties. It can affect psychological health as well as physical health; many women are told their symptoms are normal and to ‘get on with it’ despite debilitating pain. Endometriosis is a chronic condition but symptoms can vary throughout the month. Baroness Oona King describes her endometriosis as “a disability that only appears one week in four”.
There are a number of ways organisations can support employees. First, understand that symptoms can be cyclical and employees may need different support at different times of the month. Employers should consider flexible-working patterns and roles.
Second, recognise it is a chronic condition, and ensure colleagues do too; it does not disappear because a team day is scheduled. Women can fell isolated if they miss major events, especially if colleagues do not understand why. Can they contribute to scheduling?
Third, acknowledge that it can be a difficult and embarrassing condition to discuss, and support female staff to access confidential work support.
Fourth, develop a culture of understating about hidden conditions.
The symptoms of endometriosis include: painful or irregular periods; pelvic pain; painful bowel moments or pain when urinating; pain during or after sex; difficulty getting pregnant; and fatigue. Many women experience period pain, but if the pain is interfering with everyday life it is best to see a doctor.
Emma Cox is chief executive at Endometriosis UK