2022 has been a big year for reproductive health and rights.
Overseas, the overturning of the Roe v Wade decision has seen the US slide back decades on access to abortion. In Australia, it has triggered collective action at the same time as a series of reforms have been implemented across the country, from decriminalisation in South Australia, the announcement of new services in Queensland and Victoria, and free access to abortion in Canberra.
At the same time, the ground has also been shifting on periods and period poverty. There’s more national funding for addressing endometriosis than ever before, while States and Territories have been making pads and tampons available in schools since 2021, and a Bill to make period products freely available to the whole community has recently been introduced in the ACT.
These initiatives will go a long way to addressing the disproportionate cost of reproductive health for women and people with uteruses. But there’s still more to be done, and one piece of the puzzle falls squarely in the lap of employers, not policymakers.
Reproductive health policies provide leave and flexibility for employees for reproductive health-related needs, sexual health and wellbeing. Reproductive health needs can be complex, change over time and vary significantly across individuals. Reproductive health policies can allow employees leave to attend IVF or abortion appointments, flexibility to work from home when an employee has painful periods, or time off after a miscarriage.
We know that reproductive health needs do not, in most circumstances, reflect ill health, they are part of day to day life for a significant proportion of the population in the workforce. Reproductive health polices help to recognise the time and burden involved in reproduction, and its important role in our community.
Reproductive health policies also help to alleviate the indirect costs which can restrict reproductive choice. For example, the price of procedures like freezing eggs or abortion care are so significant that they stop women and people with uteruses from accessing them. The loss of paid work involved in attending appointments make these costs even greater.
It’s also been shown that the benefits don’t just flow to employee wellbeing and health outcomes, but also to overall workplace productivity and work satisfaction.
We talk about Australia being one of the most progressive countries in relation to reproductive health policy. But if this were true, wouldn’t this be reflected in our workplaces? In 2021, University of Sydney researchers Sydney Colussi, Elizabeth Hill and Marian Baird wrote that normalising and supporting reproductive health is a key lever for gender equality in the workplace.
This Women’s Health Week, Women’s Health Matters, the ACT Peak Body for Women’s Health, is implementing a reproductive health policy to support staff and are calling for other employers to do the same. The policy includes leave (24 days per year) and flexible work arrangements to support staff around:
- Fertility and other pre-natal needs
Reproductive health policies are not entirely new, and businesses such as ModiBodi and FutureSuper have previously announced leave for menstruation and menopause. Victorian Women’s Trust has also undertaken groundbreaking work in the period leave space.
Women’s Health Matters is building on these policies to set a baseline for minimum expectations around supporting reproductive health in the workplace. The intent of the policy is to provide staff with support and flexibility and to also set the bar externally for other employers to consider similar policies and supports and is publicly available from Women’s Health Matters website.
This reproductive health policy is a call to action for Australian employers to consider how they support their staff and their reproductive health needs. It also provides an opportunity to improve research and evaluation in this space, which will illustrate the direct and indirect benefits of these sorts of policies.
By normalising reproductive health in the workplace and enabling access to critical reproductive health services we will drive long term change that will contribute to gender equality, improved health outcomes, increased job satisfaction and workplace productivity.
Supporting reproductive health in the workplace should be a bare minimum expectation, not a competitive benefit.