Welcome to a new series all about women’s health in the workplace hosted by DocHQ. Every month we’ll be speaking with different women about their personal health experiences in and out of the workplace. We’ll be covering health conditions such as menopause, fertility, endometriosis, sexual health and mental health. The aim of this series is to shine a much needed spotlight on the issue of women’s health in the workplace. According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK loses 150 million working days annually due to poor women’s health and insufficient support. For four in ten women have encountered derogatory comments about a female colleagues health in the workplace, and 42% of women feel uncomfortable discussing their health issues with their managers. We want to give a place for women to share their stories and encourage employers to make changes in their workplaces to make the discussion on health more open and accessible.

If you have a story you’d like to share about your experience as an employee with a health issue in the workplace. Or if you’re an employer who has made changes to the conversation on women’s health within your team, we’d love to hear from you. Our contact details are listed in the show notes. Thank you and enjoy.

Sarah Hanna: Hello, today I’m joined by my colleagues Melanie Rutherford, Lena McFarland and Debby Alaka. To discuss women’s health and our experiences with mental and physical health in the workplace. We work with DocHQ, a health tech company striving to improve your health choices. Our vision for healthcare is one that’s driven by information powered by technology and accessible to everyone. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering a range of women’s health topics such as endometriosis period, pain, fertility, mental health and a range of other women’s health issues. And today, we’ll just have a quick introduction into who we are and our experiences. So I’ll just ask everyone to give a little brief introduction about who they are and where they’re based. Mel, why don’t we start with you, if you don’t mind?

Melanie Rutherford: Hi, everyone. My name is Mel Rutherford. I am the Marketing Manager here at DocHQ. And I’ve worked at the company for nearly a year and a half now. I’m based in London. I work fully remotely. And yeah, I’m really excited to be part of this new series of women’s health webinars and podcasts.

Debby Alaka: Hi I’m Debby and I’m the Marketing Associate here at DocHQ. And I’m currently in Lagos, Nigeria.

S.H: Thank you. I’m Sarah. And I’m the Marketing Executive here. And I’m based in Dublin, and I’ve been working for the company for nearly two years. And Lina, I’ll just pass it over to you. And then if you want to also just tell us a little bit about your experiences as well.

Lina MacFarlane: Hi everyone, I’m Lina. I’m the Head of Client Relationships here at DocHQ. I’m based just south of Guilford in Hampshire. And yeah, I’m really excited to be here today to talk about women’s health. I have got a lot to talk about, unfortunately. And to just trim it into four or five minutes. You know, it will be a challenge. But there will obviously be more episodes where we can go into a bit more detail. But it all started unfortunately, from like the moment I started my period around 16, I’ve been suffering with with all sorts, whether it be acne, or cramps, severe cramps, digestive issues, bloating, fatigue, all sorts. So I’ve, I’m now 29. So it’s been a long, long journey. And I’m still on it. I’m still suffering with something at some time or another. But essentially, when I when I was younger, I was diagnosed with pelvic inflammation disease after multiple trips, go into the GP with discomfort, pain, etc. After multiple complaints, probably about three or four years after like when I started complaining to the GP. I had a scan and I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome at around the age of 21. And tried every single contraceptive that device, so to try and treat the symptoms such as acne, the pain, period pain, etc heavy periods. And and some of that sometimes I tried the same contraceptive more than once to try and hope for a different outcome the next time because you see different doctors a completely different advice. So I’m that I was on that journey really for probably about 10 years, where I was just trying different contraceptive never really found anything I was happy with it affected my mental health, like different tablets, mood swings, etc fatigue, affecting every aspect of my life, relationships work.

Then, in October 2021, that’s when the pain started getting really severe, demobilising pain where I was taking time off work and going to the GP complaining about it. Nobody mentioned endometriosis to me basically, for about a year after I was constantly going back. Speaking on the phone to GPS, actually having physical examinations, we’ve been sent down to hospital, seeing the sexual health service, I was like passed on to them. And then eventually I moved to a new GP because I relocated, and he was the first GP to in October 2022. He was the first person to ever mentioned endometriosis to me, and the first time I saw him gave me an examination he said to me, I will refer you on to Royal surgery, and I think you probably have got endometriosis. It took eight months for me to get a diagnostic laparoscopy. And that’s the only way to formally diagnose endometriosis. During that period of me waiting, I actually had a hematoma. So I burst cyst on my ovary. And I ended up in hospital five days. I think if that hadn’t have happened, to be honest, I don’t think they would have rushed through my surgery for the laparoscopy, the full diagnosis because that all happened within probably about three or four months of each other. But so essentially, I’ve been diagnosed with endometriosis now. It was May last year, I was 29 years old. And you know, it’s taken so many visits to the GP to complain about all sorts of things to try all sorts of things. I’ve been put on morphine patches for the pain, codeine, EMIC acid, MF and emic acid, every pill, contraceptive wise. I’ve gone cold turkey and just tried nothing and see if it will settle. And I’ve tried a lot.

And during all of this, I’ve had a couple of jobs. And well, actually no, I’ve worked in multiple workplaces. And I’ve had some really great supportive managers. I’ve had the best care taken, like, of me, and which I’m so grateful for. But I’ve also had unsupportive managers or unempathetic managers. And so many people don’t know what endometriosis is. I’m looking forward to talking about that in more detail and educating more people, you know, around that, because it’s actually very interesting. One in 10 women, so 10% of women have got this, whether they know it or not, whether they have symptoms or not, you know, it is a common issue. And so on top of the endometriosis and my journey through it last year of diagnosis. I found out in November that I actually am pregnant, which was a huge surprise. Especially as in May, when I found out I had endometriosis. I was questioning my fertility. Whether I ever wanted to have children has always been you know, an unknown for me. I didn’t know if I could get pregnant and if I wanted to get myself in that situation of trying because I’d had all these gynaecological problems that polycystic ovaries Yeah. Endometriosis so I think it’s it. I’m super happy. I’m now 21 weeks. I have got endometriosis pain, pelvic girdle pain which I’m going to see the physio for. So it’s, yeah, it’s still a journey. And unfortunately, there is no cure to endometriosis. So I’m sort of anticipating that when baby is here, I will need more surgeries to remove the lesions of endometriosis, etc. So, but at the moment, I’m just taking each day as it comes.

S.H: Thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate all you kind of shared with us there. And it’s a very vulnerable thing as well to kind of go through all of that and also be working on top of it. It’s something that a lot of women have experienced throughout their lives. And especially, you know, what you were saying about how long the process took, I think a lot of women can relate to that. And it’s quite a barrier for women, even seeking out help when they feel like doctors aren’t going to listen to them or really provide the correct treatment straightaway, because it’s so long to get even in to see the doctors now. And I think as women we’re kind of raised to deal with pain in a way that, you know, men aren’t or that a lot of people don’t realise how much pain women are kind of frequently in whether it’s like period cramps or like back pain, like thigh pain, migraines, all these things that kind of come with periods. And me and Debby were actually talking briefly before the call about kind of our experiences with that because a lot of people don’t realise as well that endometriosis kind of stems from period pain. People don’t realise that really discomforting, period pains are kind of a warning sign. Because we’re all just told, but that’s normal. Debby, if you want to share anything about kind of your experiences, as well just, you know, we’re kind of start starting off our careers, and in our 20s, as well. So it’s kind of harder for us maybe to also vocalise these things to employees, I think it’ll be a valuable thing to also hear from you guys, what advice you have for younger women and offices about speaking out and about their health.

D.A: So one thing I have learned is that, okay, so normally when I have cramps, I always feel like I’m weak. Like, why do I feel like I need to, like, tell people that, oh, I can’t do something because I have cramps and like, everyone has problems. Why do I feel like I’m weak? One thing I’m trying to understand is that it’s normal. I don’t have any control of it and a lot of women experience it. So, it’s not anything to do with me, I should be able to be confident and tell my boss or manager that “oh, I’m having some cramps, can I can I take the day off,” and also not feel the need to overcompensate just because maybe that has happened. So we feel like when you take on more work to prove myself because I have cramps or because I have cramps like once a month. I think I’ve had an experience here, it was even when I was an intern, where I woke up with nausea from my period and I couldn’t do it. And I was like, oh my god, I’m not gonna get a full time offer after this, because they’re gonna think that I am not reliable or something. So I think I spoke to Mel and I was like, “oh, Mel, I can’t make it in” and she was so sweet. She was like, Oh, yes, you can have the day off. And I was like, No, I’m gonna come back in a few hours. When I came back and you told me to take the whole day off. And I felt like that made me comfortable. I feel confident, like to share with the team that I was going through this. And I feel like every woman should be able to do that. Because I feel like nobody wants period cramps, like we would say no to it. No women should feel like they need to overcompensate or like it’s going to hinder them from like, maybe getting a position or anything.

S.H: I mean, I think I definitely have experienced that thing to where like you feel like you have to overcompensate. Then if you have, I don’t know any kind of physical or mental health problem, and then you’re kind of like saying, “Oh, but I’ll come and work later or I’ll I’ll come in early the next day.” So I think we’re very fortunate, I think in this company specifically, like our CEO, and our managers are mostly men, but I feel like we have a very receptive workplace to women’s health issues, I think because we obviously work in the health tech arena. So I think we’re very fortunate that there is a little bit of an open dialogue between us. Mel, if you can also speak to your experiences or your role as a manager within the company and how that has changed your perspective on things as well.

M.R: I really resonate with a lot of what you said, Debby around, yeah, it is normal having period cramps. It’s, it’s normal for women. It’s not normal for men. But, you know, we represent 50% of the workforce. So for half of the workforce that who we are, that is totally normal. And I often feel like, you know, if, if someone comes in with, like excruciating pain for a toothache, how is that acceptable, but women’s period cramps are not an acceptable reason to take time off sick. And I feel like that’s where the conversation needs to start. And that’s how, you know the direction that workforces need to take and looking at that perspective. And really normalising it. And I think, you know, that will, will can only happen when women speak up about things like this. And the more we do it, and the more we have these conversations, and, you know, make employees aware that this is very normal for the majority of women, then, you know, there will be a lot more kind of empathy and compassion towards what we have to go through every month. And, and yeah, it can be really debilitating. And I don’t think unless you you’ve gone through it, you’ve been through it. And obviously, it happens like period, cramps have happened on various like, levels and lows. Like I’ve spoken to women who you know, they they black out, and they vomit, because it’s so bad. I’m very lucky that I haven’t been through that myself. But I know that yeah, if unless I take painkillers every four hours, it’s completely debilitating.

So, yeah, I think the more that we speak up about it, like the better chance we can have of, you know, having better experiences in the workplace. And, and yeah, I guess in my own experiences as well, I’m kind of born that sort of the older end of the age scale. I’ll be 40 in June. And, I mean, I’ve been very lucky that, you know, in terms of my yeah, my kind of female health, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve always had, like, very regular periods, I haven’t, you know, had hasn’t been too debilitating. I’ve been able to manage everything fairly well. Really, I was never really sure whether I wanted to have kids, or not. And then a couple of years ago, I actually had my, my eggs frozen. So I have 10 little eggs on ice, waiting to be used if I need to more of like an insurance policy because like, you know, you get to that age. And it’s like, you know, I don’t want to get to the point where I do want kids, and then all of a sudden, it’s not possible. And now I am at that stage, I am in relationship and we’re trying to conceive, and I do want children, and I’m very aware of my age. And and yeah, is that is that gonna be possible. And I’m also very aware that, you know, if we have to go down the IVF route of that, you know, that’s a really difficult process physically, mentally, emotionally, you know, that hasn’t, that will have an impact on my ability to, to, you know, be present, like at work. And even now, just kind of just to stress as well, I think I speak for a lot of women, my age going kind of through the same thing as me, you know, it has a huge impact on your mental health. When that distress of like, almost depression, I think a lot of it comes from me, but there is also societal pressure to as a woman to have children. And, you know, as an older woman in that in that stage of my life, then, you know, there is yes, a lot of anxiety around, you know, well, I can see, it’s difficult. I mean, it’s difficult enough getting your period anyway. But when you get a period, and you want to have a baby, it’s even harder because of that. Okay. That’s like one, one less egg that I now have in the bank. Yeah, so it’s difficult. It’s really difficult. And I think, you know, there’s a huge amount of talk now. Huge conversations happening around mental health in the workplace, which is really positive. But I think, you know, another thread that can be woven into that conversation is women’s health issues and mental health, whether that’s from endometriosis from periods, fertility issues, menopause, perimenopause. Yeah, I think those kind of yeah, those issues need to be woven into that conversation around mental health as well.

S.H: Absolutely. Thank you so much. Yeah, the mental health thing is so interesting as well, because I feel like with periods it’s like a constant hormonal change the week before, or the week after. You’re going through different stages where your mental health could be so low and you have absolutely no idea why. And then, you know, I feel like most men don’t realise that there’s that mental side of periods or that mental side of endometriosis or PCOS. And it’s like all, it’s all kind of combined together, but your hormones are also affected. And same with like menopause or pregnancy. Like a lot of women who get pregnant, it’s like a complete hormonal change. And same with post pregnancy. I’m sure at a later stage, we’ll do an episode on postpartum depression and postnatal depression and how that impacts women going back to work. Now I just want to ask, you know, everyone, what we think and through our experiences, how we can make these workplaces more open and how we can kind of broach these conversations. And Lina, in your experience from when you first started experiencing these kinds of issues with your health? How has that changed now with how you approach it with work? Or how you speak to your managers? Or maybe how it’s impacted your confidence with talking about your health has changed over the years, if you wouldn’t mind sharing?

L.M: I mean, when I was at the start of the journey, I mean, mental health wasn’t recognised, we didn’t really talk about how we felt it was. It just wasn’t something that I would speak about. And I wouldn’t, I certainly wouldn’t call work and say, I’m not coming in today, because I’ve got period pain. And it’s hard when you don’t have a diagnosis, it’s still hard when you do have a diagnosis. But when you don’t have that diagnosis, it’s almost like you doubt yourself. You feel like Debby said, like, you feel weak, you feel like, you know, why can I not deal with this? So I think what really grew my confidence to speak about it was experience. Speaking to the GP, doing research online, understanding that I’m not alone, and there’s so many women that have got some sort of kind of gynaecological or, you know, even just mental mental health that is around hormones, or, you know, so I think, really what, I wish that I had the confidence now, and I know what I know, now, like 10-15 years ago, and maybe like life would have been a lot easier work would have been a lot easier. But here we are, I think over recent years, I’ve learned to just be open from day one.

So before I even took the job at DocHQ. I said, I’ve got this condition. Now. Yeah, I guess there’s some risk that I may not be hired. I mean, you know, obviously, there’s the Equality Act and everything. So, you know, but with prejudice. And with just, people may feel judged instantly by saying, I’ve got this condition that’s going to affect my work. But I took that risk, and it paid off, because now I’m just really open. Obviously, I didn’t know that I was pregnant when I joined DocHQ. But I knew that I would have some sort of surgery, I was going through the sort of wait, I was on the waiting list for surgery for endometriosis. And I said, you know, I’ve got surgery coming out now. I think, one way or another, we all have some sort of…you have to be extremely lucky, male or female not to have something wrong with you, that’s going to end up in time off work. Like Mel said, you could have a toothache or you could have mental health or you you break your leg, you could have some sort of reason why you can’t go to work. And that could be mean, three hours off work, or three months off work, like we just don’t know. So I think now we are talking more about mental health, women’s health.

It’s just so important to feel comfortable and confident to just take ownership, I guess of like your own condition. This is what’s wrong with me. This is the time that I need off or I may need time off for surgery. I have this condition this is how it affects me. It’s not an easy conversation by any means. But it just unfortunately, has to be done so that we can start building that trust and that relationship and that compassion and also building that awareness for my manager. You know, I don’t expect for my manager to know everything about endometriosis or pregnancy or polycystic ovaries, or whatever. But I’d like to be able to feel comfortable enough that I’m going to be listened to when I say, I’m having a flare up. Or I can’t join that meeting in in 20 minutes. You know, it’s not ideal, but it’s just life and my health, you know, it comes first and foremost. There was a stage in my career where it didn’t, and I got really burnt out, I resented my my job, I resented my boss, I resented you know, just waking up in the morning, going to work. So, yeah, it’s, it’s a journey. And all I can say to somebody, or what I would tell my younger self, is just trust your trust your mind, trust the people around you. And if if you know, if that if you’re not getting the support that you need, and go to HR, that’s always another option. Like there are policies, there’s laws in place, you know, to protect people. So yeah, it’s, it’s difficult. It’s never going to be an easy conversation about how many times you’ve had it, or how many how many years you’ve had the condition. It’s always nerve wracking. But just be honest, and when you’re having a bad day, like Don’t bottle it up. Because yeah, it’s not healthy, it’s going to play on your mind, you’re going to feel guilty about, you know, you’re going to overcompensate, like we were talking about earlier, and you’re just going to end up burning yourself out.

M.R: I agree with that. And I also think we need to consider, like, if we need to be honest with ourselves and say, how confident would I feel saying this to a female manager? And how would how comfortable would I feel saying it to a male manager. And I think a lot of it is around a fear of will I be understood? Is a man going to understand exactly what I’m going through the same as a woman might? Maybe not, and that’s where the education piece comes around. And I feel like also HR departments, HR managers have a responsibility to provide a really safe space, where women feel they can come forward with these issues and feel really comfortable. And I think that’s where it begins, because then it can be, you know, fed down and trickle down through the management. And I think yet education is a massive piece. And yeah, and like you’re saying, Sarah, the hormone fluctuation, like even through someone who doesn’t have any kind of more extreme or irregular hormones, like women’s health irregularities, and just had normal periods there, you know, it’s so normal to have the hormone fluctuation. And brutally, women are at optimal performance, at work, and in their lives, for one week of the month. And the other weeks, two weeks of the month is sub optimal. And one week of the month is not great at all. So and then if you have any other condition on top of that, then it’s just compounded. And I think that needs to be understood. And it’s not because we’re not engaged or motivated or dedicated. It’s because our body is just doing what they do. It is normal for us. So I think, you know, if that is a message that can be filtered down, then alongside that education piece, then we’re going to be in a much better place to be able to speak up about this.

S.H: Absolutely. I think so much of what you said, there’s speaks so much to Yeah, how we kind of react when we have women in the workplace, and how much of a difference it makes when there’s women who are in high roles in all workplaces, because it makes it so much easier to have these kind of open conversations because, we all put so much effort and work into our everyday and most of time, we’re all going through some some semblance of discomfort or pain, or stress caused by it. And so I think it’s a testament to how hard women have always worked in workplaces and how kind of we’ve had to be very silent about things going on with us because we fear that it makes the men in the workplace uncomfortable or that it will put us at a disadvantage when trying to get positions higher up. I mean, it from our conversation with the Menopause Movement group, like we learned so much about, you know, women struggling to get into higher positions because of this idea that, you know, if you’re menopausal, you won’t be able to do the job as well. So it’s a lot of really interesting stuff. And I’m looking forward to kind of delving in deeper. With all of you as the coming weeks go and more we kind of talk about things and I just want to see if anyone has anything else that they wanted to add before we finish up for the day or kind of final thoughts they have on their experiences or what the workplace has been like for their health.

M.R: Yeah, I think for me, I mean, just as it’s part of my job really to be able to sit here with, with the three ladies and just have a really honest, open discussion, I think is testament to, to the, to the environment that we work in. And these kinds of conversations are actively encouraged and supported. So I feel very lucky.

L.M: Yeah, I second that, well, I think we are so lucky to be in such a supportive environment, and also to like have each other and to just be able to, you know, not necessarily our managers, but just to talk to our peers and colleagues and have an open conversation. It feels like a massive movement in itself. Because, yeah, a couple of years ago, you just women wouldn’t be getting together talking about it. So I think it’s great.

S.H: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think we’re all learning so much, especially about endometriosis. I think it’s something that in the last year, I’ve been hearing about so regularly, whereas before that I had never really came across it. And I think this is what’s so important now is that women’s health issues are really being pushed to the forefront, and the forefront of workplaces which will make it so much easier to do both and like to prioritise your health, Lina, as you were saying, your health comes first. But also have a fulfilling career and have all these other things that you want your life and not have your condition rule over everything.

So thank you so much, everyone for sharing and for being so open about your experiences. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by so many really, really intelligent, brilliant women every day, who are so open about the kind of health experiences they’re having, because it makes it so much easier to come forward and say if you’re not having a great day, and so I’m really grateful for this team and for the company itself. And so thank you so much for joining me on the call today.