Isabella Fricker explains what it’s like to live with a long-term health condition and why any support to get people with such conditions back to work needs to be offered without any threats to benefits.
Social isolation, stigma and discrimination might describe how many women with long-term health conditions are feeling during the austerity of the cost of living crisis.
I am one of the hundreds of thousands of young women in the UK living with long-term health conditions that affect their abilities to live independently during the cost of living crisis.
In the past eight years, I have been struggling with chronic conditions like endometriosis, chronic fatigue and vulvodynia, alongside many other unpredictable and debilitating symptoms. I have been unable to work full-time, in-person or remotely.
The co-morbidity of endometriosis, alongside chronic fatigue, has affected my ability to work, even part-time, resulting in a huge loss of income and lost career opportunities, especially when recovering from surgery and managing extended periods of post-exertional malaise (PEM). My heart goes out to all the women experiencing long Covid, chronic fatigue syndrome and other similar conditions.
My life as a young woman trying to forge a creative career in London after university took an unexpected turn. In 2014, I was diagnosed with a borderline ovarian tumour, losing my left ovary at the age of 25. Signed off, I took out a loan to survive, followed by laparoscopic surgeries in 2019 and 2021 for severe endometriosis and IVF preservation funded by the NHS.
When my health has allowed me, I have worked part-time as a visual stylist, customer service executive, creative packer, housekeeper, copy editor and proofreader. I decided to train as a yoga teacher and women’s health therapist, in the hope that one day I could support women at all stages of their life.
Over the years, I have budgeted for counselling, acupuncture and supplements to support the management of my health which has been a huge financial strain.
Loneliness and social isolation, low self-esteem, stigma and discrimination might describe how many women with long-term health conditions are feeling during the austerity of the cost of living crisis.
The security of affordable housing and the lack of properties are making it impossible for women to meet the rise in prices and rental criteria, especially since the local housing allowance has been frozen for the past three years.
I have moved 12 times in over a year which has taken a huge emotional and physical toll. Agencies require a guarantor who is earning 36 times the monthly rent. In some cases, they even ask for six months rent upfront. How can women with long-term health conditions afford that?
Living at home has never been an option for me because my sister has severe myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Therefore, over the past 18 months, I have stayed with extended family and friends, house-sat, rented Airbnb’s and short-term summer rentals, before securing a one-bed annexe in the summer of 2023.
Women need social independence and financial security. We can’t expect every woman to have savings, or to rely on partners and family.
Furthermore, women who can carry out part-time work won’t always be earning enough to reach economic independence. Women have always been overrepresented in part-time jobs, zero-hour contracts, fewer career opportunities and lower pensions. Not to mention the gender pay gap.
I have been on government support due to my low income. However, the support is not enough to meet the rise in inflation.
If this continues, women with long term-health conditions and disabilities will be pushed into further poverty, resulting in worsening health, preventing them from saving and trying to work in the future.
Women shouldn’t have to cut back on essentials, especially if they require heating to aid any pain or discomfort relating to their condition.
In November 2023, it was announced by the government that hundreds of thousands of people will be told to look for work they can do from home, or face having their benefits cut.
I would like to put questions forward to the government:
Will there be enough, if any, part-time, remote roles for women with long-term health conditions?
Where is the support to find these specific roles?
How can someone with a long-term health condition be expected to work remotely full-time or even part-time if they are unable to?
For those women, trying to enter back into work, support should be offered without any threats to benefits.
Since the world of flexible-hybrid working started post-pandemic, the job market has become increasingly competitive. Reading many online forums, women are failing health assessments. In my opinion, the government and assessors need to understand that people’s symptoms with long-term health conditions vary from day to day.
Navigating the benefits system has made me feel like a third-class citizen. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Health Assessments for Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payments are gruelling. I wouldn’t wish anymore to enter the system to just get a small amount of money that financially only covers the bare minimum. The system needs a total overhaul due to the systemic failings of a broken benefit system.
Femtech companies and women’s health charities need to lead, support, campaign and even employ women with long-term health conditions.
Not every woman will be able to work a part-time 30-hour week. Women have so much potential, but they need the opportunity to thrive in flexible and supportive working environments.
Everyone deserves a warm place to live, nutritious food, fair work, government support and a sense of independence and security – these are the fundamental building blocks of a happy and healthy life.
*Isabella Fricker is a UK-based women’s health advocate and yoga teacher at yogawithizy.co.uk.