Business of Well-being

Are Women Less Healthy than Men in the Workplace?

There is a growing body of evidence that the health of women in the US lags behind that of men but also that of comparable women in other high-income countries. {1} And the workplace provides an additional opportunity to incorporate healthy lifestyles into everyday activities.

How does health differ in women?

Since maternal and infant deaths have decreased in the last few decades, seven of the leading causes of death in women are now chronic diseases including ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, hypertension and lung cancer {2}. A large proportion of these are preventable through the control of risk factors such as obesity that are linked to lifestyle behavior.

A gendered approach to chronic disease is important because {3}:

  • There are sex differences in the presentation of some diseases. For example, men present with cardiovascular disease (CVD) at a younger age and women are more likely to suffer from a stroke in older age than men, especially hemorrhagic stroke.
  • There are gender differences in access, diagnosis, and treatment of Whereas heart disease has traditionally been seen as a man's disease, women have been under-represented in research studies despite the knowledge that women and men respond differently to the treatment of CVD. This has resulted in treatments being offered to women based on the research results of men. Also women less likely to be offered medical treatment than men such as receiving aspirin for the prevention of heart attacks.
  • The varying risk factors also have a differential effect on the risk of cardiovascular disease in men and women and this remains under-studied in women. For example, women who smoke or have diabetes have their risk of CVD elevated such that it becomes similar to the risk to men at their age. We don't know yet if high BMI has the same effect in men and women on CVD risk.

Data-driven insights

Our own insights from Vitality data in workplace health settings show that women engage differently than men with lifestyle interventions that are offered. For example, in the workplace setting we find:

  • Women engage less in physical activity than men
  • Women report more sedentary behavior than men
  • However, this is countered somewhat by women reporting healthier diets such as the number of portions of fruit and vegetables

Special consideration should also be given to weight gain during pregnancy to avoid pregnancy complications but also for the long-term health benefits of the baby and mother's weight.

Why workplace health is vital to women

According to a recent Mercer study "When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive" {4}: health-related programs, when prioritized and focused on the needs of women, were recognized as a key factor in a company's long-term ability to engage and retain female talent in its workforce and improve gender diversity.

Amongst several other approaches for achieving this goal, one recommendation was to "broaden the understanding of what it takes to support women", looking beyond typical programs when considering how best to support and enable all talent. For example, gender-specific programs focused on either health or financial wellness are associated with improved workplace gender diversity.

Poor health, unhealthy behaviors, and stressors can ultimately lead to reduced productivity or individuals leaving the workforce. Women suffer from different health issues, interact with the healthcare system differently and are more often caregivers for others, compared with their male counterparts.

What women can do to stay healthy at work

  • Find ways to be active whenever possible. Keep moving during the day. Walk and take the stairs.
  • Standing desks are an option for workplaces, as are standing meetings if desks are not an option for all employees.
  • Stairwells should be made accessible and to use.
  • Ask employers about workplace health initiatives. The onus should be on employers to make workplace health initiatives available.
  • Special consideration should be given to diet and physical activity during pregnancy.

What employers can do to help women stay healthy

Employers can provide incentives to show that health is important to the business. This includes making healthy lifestyles more convenient and maybe offering subsidies or rewards for health promoting behavior.

Involvement of leadership is also critical as studies show that when leaders are engaged in the healthy behavior, more of their employees will be engaged too.

Companies should also report on health -Vitality partnered with stakeholders to publish recommended reporting of health by companies, at aggregate company level {7}. This was in response to studies showing that companies engaging well in workplace health (e.g. Koop award winners McKesson) performed better financially such as their stock value {8}. This initiative stressed the importance of health reporting at the company level. A dashboard has been developed to facilitate companies in monitoring their overall health metrics.

As we shift towards more person-centric and personalized delivery of healthcare, it is timely to take into consideration the differences of how women engage with and access health and preventive care. And the workplace, where many women spend a large proportion of their day, is a great place for women to start.

About the Author

Dr. Cother Hajat, MBBS Ph.D. MRCP FFPH, Director of Global Health Strategy - Research Lead, The Vitality Group


  1. S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2013).
  2. Global Burden of Disease 2013 data, available at
  3. Norton R, Peters S, Jha V, Kennedy S, Woodward M. Women's Health: A new global Agenda. Oxford Martin Policy Paper. Available at:'s-health.pdf
  4. When Women Thrive, Business thrive. A Mercer Report. Available at:
  5. Dr. Ellen Flint, Steven Cummins. Active commuting and obesity in mid-life: cross-sectional, observational evidence from UK Biobank. Lancet diabetes and endocrinology. DOI:
  6. Biswas A,Oh PI, Faulkner GE, Bajaj RR, Silver MA, Mitchell MS, Alter DA.Ann Intern Med. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. 2015 Jan 20;162(2):123-32. doi: 10.7326/M14-1651.
  7. Health Metrics Reporting. The Vitality Institute. Available at:
  8. FabiusR, Loeppke RR, Hohn T, Fabius D, Eisenberg B, Konicki DL, Larson P. Tracking the Market Performance of Companies That Integrate a Culture of Health and Safety: An Assessment of Corporate Health Achievement Award Applicants. J Occup Environ Med. 2016 Jan;58(1):3-8. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000000638.
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