We must do more to support women suffering from endometriosis
Endometriosis is a debilitating but often hidden disease. We must break the taboos and ensure that women get proper support in the workplace, says Alec Shelbrooke MP
An estimated 1.5m women in the UK suffer from the debilitating, chronic disease of endometriosis. Endometriosis is a painful disease where the tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus instead is found growing in other places around the body. This leads to symptoms ranging from extreme period pain, organ damage, to related bowel, bladder and fertility problems.
Due to the personal nature surrounding the subject, and being a traditionally taboo topic, particularly in the environment of the workplace, discussing menstrual problems can be a difficult conversation – especially without a formal diagnosis.
Whilst some of the symptoms can draw comparisons with that of painful periods and this does help for people to understand better what endometriosis is, unfortunately this language is also damaging to the cause by perhaps undermining the scale and danger of the disease. A high proportion of women that suffer do go through related surgery. In this way, endometriosis cannot be comparable to period pains. Too many women in the workplace have been dismissed through ‘too much sick leave’, ‘lethargy’, ‘too much of a problem’. The huge impact this horrific disease can have on someone’s personal life is therefore compounded through difficulty in maintaining a job.
This is why I am holding a Westminster Hall debate, to raise awareness of the issue of endometriosis both broadly in society, and specifically in the workplace, so that women who suffer can have the assurance of understanding and support by people around them.
Unfortunately, diagnosis time for endometriosis currently averages between seven and 12 years for women suffering. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, whilst the symptoms of endometriosis are known, the cause is not, making diagnosis extremely difficult; secondly, endometriosis is often misdiagnosed, with sufferers being told they have irritable bowel syndrome or ‘normal women’s problems’. The only definitive way to get a formal diagnosis of endometriosis is through a laparoscopy – an operation where a camera is inserted through incisions in the abdomen to look for signs of endometriosis in the pelvis. This leads to much longer diagnosis time than other diseases.
Meanwhile, women continue to suffer with the debilitating symptoms of endometriosis. The crippling pain that women suffer from, while unseen to the outsider, impacts the individual to the point where going to work becomes difficult. In a scenario where diagnosis can take multiple years, this makes holding down a job much more difficult for women with this condition. And more often than not, most women who do receive a diagnosis go on to have further surgeries to remove the endometriosis which can massively impact both their personal and work lives. So, despite employment law requiring employers to support employees with medical conditions, a lack of formal diagnosis means women who suffer are more likely to end up taking more sick leave, generally leading to the loss of their job. The cycle is devastating. A lack of diagnosis, alongside this crippling pain, and no support from the workplace leaves women at a loss of both work and personal life.
Raising awareness of the condition, especially amongst employers, is paramount to tackling this disease. Being aware of this chronic condition means that as both an employer and an individual, we can be more understanding and sympathetic to those who suffer and treat it not as something ‘all women go through’, but as the devasting and life-changing condition that it is.
Alec Shelbrooke is Conservative MP for Elmet & Rothwell. His Westminster Hall debate will take place at 2.30pm on Tuesday 29 October
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.