Of course, all employers should support people in the workplace who have any of the whole host of chronic illnesses that my hon. Friend mentioned, but quite a few of those illnesses get diagnosed relatively easily, or in a shorter time than endometriosis. One of the problems is that there is such a long diagnosis time—I will refer to that later. Gill Furniss made a point about better education in the workplace. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend Dr Poulter that this is not about singling out one disease—the whole range of workplace diseases must be covered—but it creates many issues when women cannot even get diagnosed, and cannot tell an employer, “This is what is going on.”
I was given a copy of this text message, which a lady received:
I hope you are doing a bit better, i am sorry to hear you have so much going on physically.
We have had to pause your email access due to confidentiality as you are signed off sick. I am aware you may be off for a few months, so we will end your contact at this point as you are off for a prolonged period of time.
Should you wish to reapply when things work out for you please get in touch through the usual route.
I hope this all makes sense for you, and you can take the time you need to recover and get things back to normal.
Many thanks for all your input, and maybe hear from you again in the future.”
That last sentence perfectly encapsulates an utter lack of understanding and support that is far too commonplace.
I quote from an email I received this morning from the Open University, highlighting the work of PhD student Victoria Williams. She has given the following statistics, based on her doctoral research on the workplace:
“In a study of 7,000 women across 52 countries, over 40% had given up or lost their job because of endometriosis…Others are being pushed into part-time roles or becoming self-employed whether the motivation or support is present or not…Women lose an average of 10.8 hours per week due to pain…Women lose an average of £5,757.72 per year due to lost work days…Many suffer in silence in the workplace in a bid to protect their jobs, careers, credibility and reputation. Women live with the daily predicament of disclosing symptoms which may drive accommodations or negatively fuel workplace discrimination…Endometriosis is a condition that is closely connected to menstruation alongside a history of shame, secrecy and lack of knowledge, it is classed as a taboo topic that constrains requesting and/or receiving organisational accommodations and support. Currently there is no advice for working with endometriosis from government bodies, occupational health specialists or the CIPD.”
One woman told me,
“I have had to have extended probations, sickness meetings, ‘what are you going to do to make this better’
and you have to sit there knowing you can’t do anything as there’s no cure.”
Going back to the lady in my previous story, when she had to have the medically advised abortion, a manager said, “Should’ve worn a condom.” The lady said it was hard to describe how disgusted she was, as the manager knew what she was going through.
A catalogue of women starting jobs only to fail the probation period due to sick leave is, I am afraid, an all too common reality. However, it would be remiss of me not to name an employer that women have told me has tried very hard to help sufferers. NPower allowed one severe sufferer to work from home, on flexible working, and was understanding of hospital appointments and surgeries. Let me take this opportunity to highlight an employer that shows that it is not impossible to support women in the workplace with this terrible disease.
My ambition for today’s debate is to raise awareness, especially of support groups, such as the one that Hannah Bardell mentioned, and others such as the Northern Endometriosis Sisters Support and Period Powerful Hub, to mention just two. I want better education in schools for young girls, as we can easily overlook the problem that a young woman with a single-parent father may have in understanding these issues. As I said, I hope that this debate will be recognised by several Departments, but I ask the Minister to ask the Department for Work and Pensions to do a full assessment of how the Department recognises endometriosis as a disability.
For too long, women with this disease have been dismissed as lazy, unreliable, dishonest and a nuisance. It surely must be illegal for a manager who is told of a sufferer’s condition to dismiss it out of hand by saying, “Should’ve worn a condom.” Women have described having to cope with blood seepage through their clothes, but another common factor can be a complete loss of bowel control, and having to dash to the bathroom unexpectedly. To have such an embarrassing and distressing situation used against them, and sometimes to be mocked in the workplace, must surely be illegal. The Equality Act 2010 is a piece of legislation we should all be proud of, but as with all law, it should evolve and change, especially when previously unrecognised situations come to the fore.
I want an assurance from the Minister that he will instruct his Department to do an assessment of how the blatant breaches of law on workplace humiliation, employment protection and, quite frankly, workplace bullying can be addressed, since this silent disease, which often has no physical appearance, can be so easily ignored by employers.