Australian workplaces “must to do more” to meaningfully support women’s health during the pivotal reproductive years, Professor Helen Skouteris says.
Prof Skouteris, Director of CRE HiPP, said a “serious societal shake-up” was required, for women to feel not only supported but empowered and equipped to lead healthier lifestyles before conceiving, during pregnancy and postpartum.
Prof Skouteris’ comments come after recent research highlighted an increase in larger babies (over 4kg birth weight) since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and an increase in mothers recording higher BMIs and gestational diabetes.
“Research also shows that maternal weight at conception is a key determinant of both maternal and childhood obesity and over half of Australian women enter pregnancy with overweight or obese,” Prof Skouteris said.
“We need to do better,” Prof Skouteris said. “We know women, and in particular mothers, fared worse last year during the pandemic, juggling work, homeschooling and other family responsibilities.”
“It’s time for a radical shift in society, to alter the way we think about women’s health, to ensure that what our workplaces are offering is actually of benefit to pregnant women and those planning to or wanting to conceive.”
“There’s no individual blame here – it’s about everybody doing their part to ensure women and children are given the best chance at a healthy life.”
Prof Skouteris said her NHMRC-funded Centre of Research Excellence in Health in Preconception and Pregnancy (CRE HiPP), was pioneering innovations in lifestyle health both before and during pregnancy to reach women where they are – including in the workplace.
“Our research and consumer data shows women are often too afraid to tell their employer they are planning a pregnancy or pregnant, for fear of losing a contract renewal or being looked over for a role,” Prof Skouteris said.
“Some don’t even want to contact HR due to privacy concerns, and therefore they are left to their own devices to find out what benefits and support their workplaces might offer, and that often makes the process difficult.”
Prof Skouteris acknowledged many Australian workplaces did operate successful health and wellbeing initiatives, however, her team’s research has shown that unless programs are designed to suit specific groups’ special needs, such as those of a pregnant woman, those who need the support most are likely to miss out.
“A run club or lunch time yoga class is a wonderful initiative that may suit many in an organisation, but pregnant women and those planning pregnancy have different needs and barriers to what others might consider accessible and suitable activities,” she said.
“We’re working with a number of organisations across Australia to codesign workplace lifestyle health and wellbeing and support portals – one-stop-shops if you like, to ensure we have a blueprint for how best to support and engage women at this pivotal life stage.
“And starting as early as possible before pregnancy is best to ensure women are the healthiest they can be at conception and during pregnancy.”
Currently 32-weeks pregnant, Ballarat mother Juliana Betts said when it came to her healthy habits during both her first and now second pregnancy, there were a number of hurdles.
“For both pregnancies I actually suffered quite bad morning sickness and that really does hamper your ability to make and eat healthy food,” Ms Betts said. “You’re often really tired and just the thought of preparing a meal can be a challenge.”
She applauded calls for specific workplace support and information for women before and during pregnancy.
“I think that it would be great to have an easy to access resource through your workplace, especially in subsequent pregnancies like I’m experiencing now – you’re really busy with other children and family commitments so I don’t have much time to search for information.”
“It’s a good reminder that we need to look after ourselves as well – it’s not just important for us, but for our babies’ future health too.”
Ms Betts added that women often put themselves last when it came to their needs versus caring for their family and meeting work commitments.
Read a recent paper by CRE HiPP PhD student Seonad Madden: Women in the Workplace: Promoting Healthy Lifestyles and Mitigating Weight Gain during the Preconception, Pregnancy, and Postpartum PeriodsBack