Women's workforce in India faces an uphill battle

Medha Dutta Yadav
01 Oct 2022
Women's workforce in India faces an uphill battle

New Delhi: As per World Bank data, since the Covid-19 outbreak, female employment in India has dropped down by nine per cent in 2022. This data appears more worrisome when compared to the recent Union Budget statistics that put women’s employability at a healthy 51.44 per cent. What is then stopping Indian women from embracing a professional life?

Of the multiple reasons, an alarming concern is a stress among working women. As the pressure of work increases, its impact on women’s sexual health goes remarkably high, with disorders like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, etc. leading to infertility among working women.

Plum, a pioneer in driving 'inclusion in insurance’, released a report earlier this month around, “The Reproductive and Sexual Health of Working Women”, urging companies to pay attention to unspoken aspects of women’s health that, it says, will lead to greater support for working women resulting in a higher percentage of women workforce.

Women with their dual responsibility of looking after jobs and household put their health on the back foot. Dr Nisha Kapoor, Director and HOD Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Marengo QRG Hospital, Faridabad, says, “Stress at work disturbs the work-life balance and leads to many health issues including sexual health. Hormonal imbalance and lowered immunity induced by stress also contribute to it.”

According to the Indian Society of Assisted Reproduction, infertility currently affects about 10 to 14 per cent of the Indian population, with higher rates in urban areas where one out of six couples is impacted. Nearly 27.5 million couples actively trying to conceive suffer from infertility in India. “Higher incidence in urban couples is mainly because of career-related stress, higher age at which they start planning and also impact of urbanisation on lifestyle such as drinking, smoking, junk foods, lack of regular exercise etc,” says Kapoor.

Sexual well-being of women affected by workplaces is largely an urban problem. Additionally, higher costs of living in urban India can entice young adults to wait until they are financially stable before having a child. This leads to postponement of childbearing and ultimately lower fertility rates or infertility.

Dr Kirty Nahar, Senior Consultant Gynaecologist and Obstetrician, Apollo Hospitals, Ahmedabad, says, “Stress has the potential to impact us physically, emotionally and relationally. It can affect different body systems and cause damage if a person is under chronic stress. Stress can also attack your sex life on many levels. One of the biggest is via hormones. Stress can cause your body to produce a lot of the hormone—cortisol—which can lower your libido. This can mess with your menstrual cycle and run riot with your mood too. The hormones released due to stress can affect metabolism, leading to weight fluctuation. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression.”

It is not just sexual health that is impacted due to work-related stress that is affecting women and disrupting their work-life balance. Experts are also raising the flag around mental health. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s Accidental Death and Suicides in India report released in August, the number of deaths by suicide in 2021 registered an increase of over seven per cent from the previous year. Why should this concern us? Of these, 27 per cent of the total suicides—45,026—were among women. Mental health is a silent killer and the lack of awareness and sensitisation regarding the same is only making the issue more difficult to tackle.

What impacts mental health among women?

A study based in India published in the International Journal of Epidemiology highlights three key factors: socio-economic factors, marital and gender disadvantage factors and physical and reproductive health factors. Moreover, India has 0.7 physicians per 1,000 people and only one psychiatrist for every 3,43,000 people. It is likely that this number is even lower for women in India. Further, the stigma women face is life-altering. Even in the case of urban working women, mental health and sexual well-being are both issues that are conveniently brushed under the carpet.

While more and more women are eager to become working professionals today, the impact on mental health and sexual well-being is clipping their wings. Also, women in India combine unpaid work at home with paid employment. This adds to the stress they face, which in turn affects their physical, mental and emotional health. It’s a vicious unending cycle.

What can be done to help?

Regular counselling sessions at work and support from colleagues and family will help address the lacunae to a large extent. Companies need to invest in the sexual health and mental well-being of their women employees. Insurance agencies need to widen the scope to cover these issues. Also, women need to learn to unburden and address their health. These are only small steps, but they can make a world of difference and create a workforce that is healthy and hence more productive.

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