Endometriosis and the workplace: Bhavni Fowler

"Having found my inner voice to be able to be open about my condition at work, coupled with the flexibility and support of my managers and peers has been the absolute antidote in allowing me to manage my endometriosis whilst maintaining a successful career as well."

Bhavni is an Endometriosis UK Support Group Leader in London. She was diagnosed with endometriosis at 22, and over a decade, she underwent four surgeries whilst working for two different employers. She is now raising awareness of endometriosis and urging employers to sign up to to the Endometriosis Friendly Employer scheme. You can find out more about the scheme and how to join here

"My perception of periods, from the age of 12, were that they were all heavy and painful for everyone.  Therefore, I accepted that as my ‘normal’ and carried on with life, getting through university and starting my first job.  I remember thinking at the time that I would just need to dose myself up on painkillers for a few days every month and make sure I had a good stash of sanitary products in my bag, assuming that everyone was the same.   Each cycle, I would have to make almost hourly visits to the toilets (carrying my handbag or stashing sanitary products up my sleeve) to avoid accidents and would feel so relieved when the day was over, so that I could get home and collapse on the sofa.  I had assumed that everyone suffered in the same way each month and could see all work colleagues getting on with things, which made me feel that I also had to do the same.

At the age of 22, I was officially diagnosed with having Endometriosis.  Unfortunately for me, my twenties were blighted by the condition, resulting in 4 surgeries over the decade, each requiring between 4-6 weeks off work.   The surgeries spanned two different employers so it was interesting to note how different each employer’s approach was to my condition and the surgery. 

The first was really supportive of my need for time off for the surgery and recovery.  But when I returned, they were not in the slightest bit concerned about what they might be able to do to help me manage the condition.  The second seemed less supportive of the surgery and the time off that I may need.  In fact, on one occasion my recovery took longer than planned and as a result they instructed an independent Occupational Health visitor to come and see me at home and carry out an assessment.  If I am honest, I understood that procedurally they needed to do this, but the way in which the visit was undertaken was really negative.  It felt like they did not believe that I was actually suffering as much as I was and that I was just angling for more time off.  This was difficult to take in as I was naturally feeling traumatised and fragile from the surgery, but there was very little empathy displayed.  As hard as that experience had been, as a result of it, my employer was able to offer me a well planned (phased-in) return to work.  In addition, I was offered a lot more flexibility in the role, which resulted in the option to work from home 2 days a week.  I have to admit I was not expecting such a positive outcome from such a negative home visit and the changes that were offered really did make a positive difference in helping me to live with this condition and to carry out my job really well.

Subsequently, I have had a number of different roles ranging from running my own consultancy business to working for an employer where I was expected to be in an office with set hours 5 days a week.  As I am sure you can imagine, the role with the fixed office hours did not work out well for me and my sickness record shot through the roof (ironically with a clear pattern around my monthly cycle).  Sadly, I did not feel that I could talk about my condition with my employer at the time.  Partly, this was down to me and my inability at the time to have confidence that this condition was one which warranted adjustments in the workplace...and partly, to do with the culture of the organisation.

Needless to say, I have learnt from that experience and am now more confident about speaking out about the condition and how it impacts me in the workplace.  I am extremely lucky, as my current employer is really supportive.   I have been open with all my line managers who have all responded well to my honesty (both male and female managers alike).    Thankfully, I now work from home and have complete control over my diary – which makes it much easier to forecast my worst days and ensure that I have some desk days around that time.  When I am having a bad day, I can be on my sofa with a hot water bottle and my lap top, and am still able to work.  I recently mentioned that I have the condition in our internal newsletter – the difficulty with having these invisible illnesses is that no one would even begin to understand what you are going through in those difficult days.  Therefore, I decided to mention it as part of a Q&A in the hope that others who have the condition do not feel they are alone and to encourage some greater understanding/discussion around chronic illnesses in the workplace. 

Having found my inner voice to be able to be open about my condition at work, coupled with the flexibility and support of my mangers and peers has been the absolute antidote in allowing me to manage my endometriosis whilst maintaining a successful career as well.

I believe that employers should sign up to the Endometriosis Friendly Scheme as it shows a huge commitment on their part to supporting their employees.  As we know, 1 in 10 women suffer with this condition, and mostly they will suffer in silence. The benefits are vast, and include:

  • A workforce that feel valued and supported
  • Greater productivity, loyalty and the ability to recruit and retain talent
  • Less absence and the direct financial benefit of that on the business
  • A clear framework to support individuals in the workplace

Ultimately, the importance of ensuring the wellbeing (both physical and mental) of employees should be at the forefront for each employer as without a healthy workforce, the business will also suffer."

To sign up to become an Endometriosis Friendly Employer, click here