23 November 2021
Endometriosis Australia has supported the efforts of Western Sydney University’s NICM Health Research Institute and Southern Cross University’s National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine to conduct a national survey of 389 women* with a confirmed diagnosis of endometriosis. The workplace changes associated with the government’s COVID-19 policy response have provided a unique opportunity to examine the impact of flexible working arrangements on the management of endometriosis symptoms.
Many women are fearful of raising the issue in the workplace, with 1 in 3 (31%) women with endometriosis reporting being passed over for promotion due to having to manage their endometriosis symptoms, and 1 in 6 (15%) women reporting being fired due to having to manage their endometriosis symptoms.
Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, thanked Endometriosis Australia, Western Sydney University and Southern Cross University for highlighting the barriers exposed through this research that women face in trying to balance work commitments and their endometriosis.
“That fact that an overwhelming majority of women with endometriosis have benefited from the shift to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic is an important insight. I hope that more Australian employers will use this research to help support their employees who may be suffering from this terrible condition and to help them reach their full potential in the workplace,” Minister Hunt said.
Professor Jon Wardle of Southern Cross University said, “Nearly all women with endometriosis in our study said their endometriosis had a significant impact on their work life, with nearly two-thirds of women having to take unpaid time off work to manage their endometriosis symptoms.
“Not having flexible arrangements in relation to work times or work locations to manage endometriosis symptoms appropriately creates hardships in the workplace for women with endometriosis, with more than half the women in our study identifying this as a problem.”
The survey results published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (ANZJOG), “Endometriosis and the workplace: lessons from Australia’s response to COVID-19” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajo.13458)
Endometriosis is a common disease in which the tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows outside it in other parts of the body. More than 830,000 (more than 11%) of Australian women, girls, and those who identify as gender diverse suffer with endometriosis at some point in their life, with the disease often starting in teenagers.
Symptoms are variable and this may contribute to the average 6.5-year delay in diagnosis.
Common symptoms include pelvic pain that puts life on hold around or during a woman’s period. It can damage fertility. Whilst endometriosis most often affects the reproductive organs, it is frequently found in the bowel and bladder and has been found in muscle, joints, the lungs and the brain.
Dr Mike Armour, lead author, Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University’s NICM Health Research Institute and Chair of Endometriosis Australia Research Committee said, “Whilst COVID-induced workplace changes were challenging, for women with endometriosis they were also beneficial, with 79% of women with endometriosis reporting that COVID workplace changes had made management of their endometriosis symptoms easier. As a result of easier endometriosis management, flexible working arrangements also made women with endometriosis more productive, with more than half of women with endometriosis indicating that they were more productive as a result of COVID workplace changes.”
Women identified workplace flexibility in relation to time management and working from home as the most important factor that could improve management of endometriosis in the workplace. Other important interventions included:
- Introduction of 20-minute rest periods
- Access to healthcare benefits
- Access to healthcare services such as counselling, mindfulness or assisted exercise
- Access to physical aids (ergonomic chairs, heat packs, props)
Endometriosis Australia’s CEO Alexis Wolfe said, “These interventions are relatively simple to implement and can help make the workplace more endometriosis friendly. As the COVID experience has shown, creating a more flexible workplace can be a win-win for both the employer and employee, making it easier for women to manage their endometriosis, while also making them more productive and respected employees”.
Endometriosis is reported to cost Australian society $9.7 billion annually, with two-thirds of these costs attributed to a loss in productivity, with the remainder, approximately $2.5 billion being direct healthcare costs. Comparatively, diabetes costs about $1 billion annually in direct healthcare costs.
Ms Wolfe said “The message is loud and clear, those with endometriosis are disadvantaged in a workplace that does not foster and support flexible working arrangements. With 1 in 9 women, girls and those who are gender diverse affected by endometriosis, it’s evident workplaces need to create safe, confidential, and supportive environments for employees to share their experiences and find a balance that works for both parties.”
*Western Sydney University, Southern Cross University and Endometriosis Australia acknowledges individuals in the transgender community and people who are non-binary and living with endometriosis who may not identify as women.