Simple strategies to support women's health
This article was produced in partnership with the Canadian Chiropractic Association.
As companies strive to create more inclusive and supportive work environments, one area that is often overlooked is women’s health. More specifically, women’s musculoskeletal (MSK) health.
“Dr. Stacy Sims, a female physiology and nutrition scientist out of New Zealand said it best: ‘Women are not small men,’” says Dr. Carol Ann Weis, associate professor and course coordinator for female care at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College. “Workplace research shouldn’t be extrapolated with the expectation women can simply conform. Women need supports for female-specific issues.”
Studies reveal women are twice as likely to develop certain MSK disorders. Over the course of a woman’s career, physical demands involving work life and family life can result in joint and muscle pain while conditions such as arthritis, back pain, tendinitis, and osteoporosis can also develop. If these conditions are not adequately addressed, they can have a significantly negative impact on women’s overall wellbeing and productivity at work. By strategizing benefits and policies that recognize women’s MSK health, companies not only improve the lives of their female employees, but they can also create a healthier, more engaged workforce.
“Without access to the supports women need to enable necessary healthcare choices, female empowerment is destined to remain a point of discussion only,” says Dr. Kathryn Vardy, chiropractor and co-founder of the Kinetic Chiropractic and Health Clinic in Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador. “Making room for the challenges women face over the course of their employee life cycle paves the way for their success. In my experience, we talk about this more than we support it.”
Women need flexible and adequate paramedical benefits they can rely on for MSK injuries borne out of repetitive motions at work, stress overload, family caretaking, and the strains and injuries that emerge from workplace tools, equipment and office designs built to a generalized male standard.
Inadequate paramedical coverage can result in women pushing through pain which can then result in long-term disability. Those without adequate coverage during pregnancy and parental leave may be forced to step away from their careers.
By providing female professionals with the means to effectively manage their unique health concerns – issues related to reproductive health, pregnancy, childcare, post-partum, perimenopause, and menopause – and reminding female employees they can use their paramedical benefits to address these issues, companies can begin to engender a culture of equal opportunity.
Expectant mothers – 90% experience MSK pain
“I’ve seen it again and again. Women want to thrive at work, and they want to work until retirement and get their pensions. But pregnancy, childbirth, caring for children and aging parents, this all takes an enormous physical and mental toll,” says Vardy. “Without the resources women need to cover paramedical costs, especially during pregnancy, some women’s choices are limited to whether they’ll continue working, or not.”
Pregnant women who are on their feet all day - nurses, teachers, aircraft mechanics, retail associates – as well as those sitting at a desk all day – graphic designers, writers, programmers, accountants – are at elevated risk for MSK strain and injury.
This is where suitable paramedical coverage and supportive work environments that allow women to access the care they need are critical.
“Allowing women to go to their appointments without feeling guilty is imperative,” Vardy says. “When women can see their chiropractors, they feel better and can stay at work longer. They can also learn about the exercises they should be doing, movements they should avoid, and what types of nutritional adjustments they should be making to stay healthy.”
Simple strategies that support female MSK health
Weis says employers and HR leaders can make a significant impact on female MSK health by strategizing paramedical benefits tailored to a women’s physiology instead of outdated literature that reflects male-skewed research findings. But with available research on women’s workplace MSK issues comparatively scant, both Weis and Vardy agree it’s up to HR leaders to examine their paramedical utilization trends and consult with their female employees to learn more about the challenges they face. Once these factors are better understood, HR leaders can then create effective, custom-tailored strategies and solutions. This helps optimize workforce health, increases retention, and gives employers seeking top talent a competitive advantage within the labour force.
“There are lots of cost-effective strategies HR leaders can implement to support women’s MSK health from the moment they enter into the workforce,” says Weis.
Weis says things like yoga, meditation, exercise classes and Lunch-and-Learns via Zoom that educate women about nutrition, stress management, and the important role weight bearing movement plays in maintaining MSK health and preserving bone density offer both short-term and long-term benefits to both employers and employees.
“Ensuring women always stay active and strong is crucial to their physical and mental health, especially in addressing hormonal changes which is something we don't often talk about,” says Weis. “As women age, they lose 3 per cent of their bone density every decade, making them physically weaker. Exercise and strength training can slow this progression. It also decreases stress and contributes to better physical and mental wellbeing.”
Today’s inflation and the impact on tomorrow’s benefits coverage
In today’s economy, adequate company benefits must be adjusted to inflation.
“It’s heartbreaking the number of patients who are in terrible pain that confide in me they’ve bumped up against their chiropractic benefits caps and they don’t know what to do,” says Vardy. “Costs are rising, and yesterday’s benefits aren’t covering today’s treatment needs.
Both Vardy and Weis say maximizing flexible paramedical benefits that allow women to allocate cost coverage as needed, whether it’s chiropractic care, physiotherapy, or massage therapy, gives women more control over their health and their professional journey.
“In my practice, I have seen some cases where inadequate coverage is a reason for a woman's early retirement. If they are in pain, not supported by their employer, unable to take the time for appointments/family, they may make the decision to retire early. They may make the sacrifice in terms of their pension. Work life balance is important but we often don’t realize just how important it is until later in our careers. If we can provide support along the entire career continuum this could be minimized,” says Vardy. “It all comes back to comprehensive strategies that promote health to prevent disease.”
Building a more equitable future
Central to female empowerment is access to resources and opportunities that give women the ability to control their own lives and achieve valued goals. Employers can play their part by taking a second look at what the women at their workplace truly need.
“Ultimately, we all want the same thing — employees who are healthy and feel supported, and we should be working together to achieve this,” says Vardy.
Supporting women’s health in the workplace should be a year-round conversation that results in actionable strategies. Employers can set the tone for generations to come when they re-examine potentially inadequate benefits plans and allocate what’s needed to level the playing field.