It’s time to stop ignoring the link between women, work and poor health


Did you know that a substantial number of women’s health problems – including musculoskeletal disorders, breast and bladder cancers, reproductive health problems, psycho-social disorders, skin disorders, fatigue, stress and cognitive disorders – are associated with poor working conditions?

This was just one of the many insights shared at the European Trade Union Institute’s (ETUI) three day conference on Women’s Health and Work held in Brussels in March 2015.

Over 250 delegates discussed issues concerning women’s health in the workplace while researchers and trade union activists exchanged knowledge and ideas.

One thing the various presentations – from renowned speakers such as Lucia Artacoz (Occupational Health at Barcelona’s Towh Hall in Spain), Colette Fagan (Manchester University, UK) and Karen Messing (Université du Québec, Canada) – all pointed to the fact that, while some progress has been made towards bridging the pay gap between women and men in parts of Europe, sadly, issues surrounding health, safety and women at work are barely on the radar of employers and governments.

Participants discussed the way in which various employment trends force women to pay a high price, both in terms of their health and their personal life.

Working night shifts, exposure to chemicals in dye and pesticides, prolonged sitting and standing and engaging in monotonous and repetitive work are some of the main causes of health problems for female workers.

Many women are also subjected to harassment, bullying and discrimination at work, and exposure to this negative behaviour can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.

However, findings from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey underline just how difficult it is to measure the true scale and impact of these issues due to under-reporting, cultural differences in terms of what is or isn’t (un)acceptable behaviour and resignations from the most traumatised workers.

In order to tackle some of the health issues facing female workers worldwide, a number of tools need to be developed, including a comprehensive model to take into account the specific health issues facing working women.

As discussed at the conference, this model should include the development of participatory methodologies for intervention and the promotion of a holistic approach to policy implementation in support of a quality work-life balance for women.

Extensive research has already been carried out on gender issues in the world of work, with some pertaining to women’s health, however, these research findings are seldom translated into action.

This needs to be reversed.

Gender must be mainstreamed, healthy working conditions must be established for working women, and it is high time that all the research and talking becomes everyday practice.

As Philippe Pochet, director-general at ETUI, put it at the end of the conference: “[the] shift from knowledge towards a political agenda is crucial. Unions have to work together to influence policy.”