How to do More in Women’s Health

by | Jun 9, 2024 | Take 5 Articles

Benefits plans have a direct role to play to help bridge gender gaps and better support, engage and retain female employees. This was the main takeaway of new research conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Sun Life and presented at Benefits Alliance’s SPARK conference in Toronto in April.

Broadly speaking, women’s health revolves around conditions that affect women disproportionately or differently than men. These conditions may be female-specific, tied to reproduction or biology, or they may be general health conditions where symptoms or treatment efficacy may differ for women.

The 1,400 women surveyed “really spoke a lot about how they felt inequities in their experiences in the workplace—and mental health came up as a key priority across all age groups,” co-presenter Grace Tong, Vice-President and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Practice Lead at Ipsos, told attendees.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • 56 percent of the surveyed female employees, who worked across a variety of sectors, levels of management and types of position, indicated that mental health is most important to them.
  • 63 percent felt the same way regarding other chronic illnesses, with migraines and other headaches, cardiovascular disease and bone health at the top of the list.
  • 61 percent cited at least one female-specific condition to do with gynecology, reproduction, peri-menopause or menopause as a priority.
  • Cancer (38%) as well as aging (35%) were also personally more important to the women surveyed.
  • Regarding aging, 67 per cent agreed that, compared to men, women’s age is perceived as a disadvantage in terms of career advancement.

Additional gender gaps emerged in the research, including societal expectations, said Tong. Women “feel the burden of household and childcare responsibilities; they believe this actually contributes to disadvantage in the workforce,” she said.

A third had taken a leave of absence in the past year due to family responsibilities or health concerns, and many had reduced the number of hours they worked, changed roles or left jobs in order to manage their family obligations along with their workload.

The research findings certainly support the premise that benefits plans can do more to support women’s health. “There’s more work to do,” said co-presenter Andrea Belvedere, Assistant Vice-President, Health Benefits and Solutions at Sun Life Health.

Build awareness, add benefits

One current challenge is that women are unaware or don’t see the value of their benefits, noted Tong. “They’re either not using them or they’re not seeing their relevance and because of that they’re seeing very little value.”

For example, 90 per cent were unaware of their employer’s mental-health benefits. Of those who were aware of coverage levels, 60 per cent reported a maximum of $1,000. That amount likely falls well short, as a successful mental-health treatment plan often involves 20 sessions, the cost of which add up to well over $1,000, says Tong.

The good news: women with more robust benefits plans and who felt supported in the workplace were less likely to leave, noted Belvedere. As well, more than half of those surveyed are willing to pay a premium for benefits and services tailored to their needs, including coverage for medications, medical testing and sexual health counselling. Respondents also zeroed in on the need for more comprehensive coverage for massage therapy, fertility treatments and caregiving support (of young children or aging parents).

Belvedere suggested plan sponsors consider the following to better meet the needs of women employees:

  • Pharmacogenomic testing. For treatments for mental disorders, “there are challenges that can come with finding the right pharmaceutical interventions for someone,” said Belvedere. Pharmacogenomic testing rules out medications that will likely have adverse effects. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool that could be made available,” said Belvedere. 
  • Improved access to care. For themselves and as caregivers, women employees would value quicker access to care, which could include virtual care and navigation support to help them understand and access available health benefits as well as the healthcare system. 
  • Access to menopause practitioners. Facilitating access to certified menopause specialists can be a tremendous support for women with severe symptoms, which can lead to absenteeism and presenteeism. 
  • Additional supports for cancer treatments. “Cold capping” is a procedure to protect hair before chemotherapy—and would be highly valued as a benefit, said Belvedere. “We know from research and insights that women tend to have self-identity that’s tied to their hair,” she said. A health spending account is a good starting point for coverage, she added. 
  • Coaching. Coaching can go a long way to ensure women stay healthy, are productive at work and take fewer absences. Virtual coaching is a promising and relatively easy modality for chronic disease management support, including mental health, as well as for conditions such as infertility. “This idea around coaching is partnering with plan members to support them on their health journey, through a personalized approach that is relevant and unique to a plan member,” said Belvedere. 

Belvedere summarized that access to specialized providers with specific training in women’s health needs and better visibility to benefits, coverage and healthcare navigation support  are all key components in supporting women’s health.

“We have made a lot of progress and we continue to focus on delivering benefits and solutions that support women’s health. Research and partnerships with organizations that focus on women’s health are just some of the ways we’re moving the needle in this space,” she said.

This article is brought to you by Sun Life, a Platinum Preferred Solutions Provider for members of Benefits Alliance and their clients.