Sex/gender analysis: Men and women with arthritis have same needs at work, but not the same supports

Study of workers with arthritis finds the need for workplace supports goes unmet more often among women, and that's due to the type of jobs and workplaces women are in

Published: August 6, 2018

Understanding sex- and gender-related difference is important—but it’s also helpful to know when men and women have more similarities than differences. Sex/gender-based analyses can reveal such situations.

In a study on workplace accommodations for arthritis, IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Monique Gignac found that men and women experienced similar symptoms and needed the same types of workplace accommodations. The differences between them related to accommodation needs that went unmet, and these were related to the types of work women did, not to their health status.

“Men and women may be different in the types of jobs they do or industries they work in, but at the end of the day, having a health condition is often an equalizer when it comes to what men and women need from the workplace,” says Gignac of her study findings, which were published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health (AWEH) special edition in April (doi:10.1093/annweh/wxx115).

The study was based on a sample of nearly 500 baby boomers recruited for a larger study. All participants had a form of arthritis (including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) that they had been living with for at least one year, and were working at least 15 hours a week.

Gignac and her team found that men and women were similar in needing a broad range of accommodations, and no differences were found between them in the availability of workplace supports and accommodations. (About 70 per cent of respondents said five or more of the 14 accommodations were available to them.)

Respondents drew on a wide range of accommodations, the most common being flex time, extended health benefits, personal days with pay, and work-at-home arrangements. Other accommodations were used, but less frequently—most by a quarter to a third of respondents.

The study did find differences between men and women when it came to having needs met. A larger proportion of women said their needs were unmet, whereas a larger proportion of men said the workplace supports actually exceeded their needs.

Upon closer examination of the factors linked to unmet accommodation needs, however, Gignac found sex or gender did not account for differences in unmet needs, nor did health-related factors such as fatigue and pain. Rather, the factors most linked to unmet needs related largely to the work context. These included part-time work; work in industries such as education, health, and sales and retail; and high stress work.

Thus, the disparity may be explained by the larger proportion of women in the study sample who worked in sales and retail jobs or in part-time positions, where benefits are less common. Although the same factors were linked to whether the needs of women and men go unmet, these factors are more likely to apply to women, says Gignac. Women are more likely to work part-time or in education, health, sales and retail. They’re also more likely to report greater job stress. She adds this could mean that potential vulnerabilities are greater for women.

Gignac also notes that the sample excludes self-employed people, who are more likely to be men—and for whom the reality of workplace supports is completely different. We have to be aware that we’re missing an important piece of the picture when it comes to understanding men’s experiences with chronic conditions, says Gignac. It all points to how difficult it is to understand sex and gender in the workplace.