Almost a third of women (31%) have experienced severe reproductive health symptoms in the last 12 months such as heavy menstrual bleeding, yet under half (46%) have sought professional medical help.
The survey of more than 7,000 women by Public Health England (PHE) looked at the impact women’s reproductive health issues - including menopause, incontinence and infertility - has on the nation’s physical, mental and social wellbeing.
The study found the hidden burden of reproductive health was particularly evident in the workplace. Angela Kilcoyne, who 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.”
Angela is far from alone - focus groups revealed 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 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.
Dr Sue Mann, public health consultant in reproductive health, from PHE, said: “Women’s reproductive health concerns can fundamentally influence physical and mental wellbeing 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.”
The report will form the basis of a cross-governmental five-year action plan on reproductive health, led by Public Health England together 18 healthcare bodies