Talking about the taboo

24th of June 2016 Article by Paul Wonnacott
Talking about the taboo

Paul Wonnacott is managing director and president of Vectair Systems, specialist in washroom hygiene and aircare systems. The company does business around the globe and Wonnacott has gained considerable experience in many of the world's most important markets. He writes his latest blog for ECJ.

Hygiene, and more specifically bathroom habits, can often be a tricky subject to talk about. Part of the problem is that the British have a historically well-known habit of avoiding talk on any subject that they think is ‘taboo'. Waste is one of these subjects. Whether it is feminine hygiene waste, ‘number two' waste or urinary waste, no-one wants to discuss it.

We took some action therefore, back in 2013, to do some research on attitudes towards feminine hygiene waste. We carried out a study in the USA where was asked women "Do you feel embarrassed to talk to your friends and family about women's sanitary hygiene?"

Of the respondents that said yes, 80 per cent were aged 18-25. We also asked: "Do you feel embarrassed to talk to your friends and family about women's gynaecological health?"

88 per cent of the study sample said no, they were not embarrassed to discuss gynaecological health in general, however 12 per cent of respondents said that they felt very uncomfortable talking about these issues.

In real terms, the lack of talking has a devastating effect on women around the UK. We partner with The Eve Appeal because through our research, we discovered that awareness of women's gynaecological cancers is very low, and that many people don't know the names of all five if they had to guess (they are Ovarian, Cervical, Womb, Vulval and Vaginal, if you were wondering).

Every day in the UK, 55 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer and 21 will die.

Part of the problem is that women are too embarrassed to discuss gynaecological cancers, or any symptoms they might experience. Embarrassment is high in the ‘number two' department too. This year, when we asked people "Do you feel awkward/embarrassed doing a ‘number two' in a toilet other than your own?" 56 per cent said yes, they do. In fact toilet embarrassment is so high that 41 per cent of people try not to go at work unless they absolutely have to!

In the same way, men see urinary incontinence as a subject that is taboo, and so it often goes ignored. Urinary incontinence is a common and distressing problem which can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life.

Men with urinary incontinence may have to wear special inlays which have to be changed frequently, however many men's washrooms currently lack a discreet, safe and hygienic way to dispose of these.

Not so long ago we received a letter addressed to Vectair Systems from a professor who had undergone a prostatectomy. He was concerned (and rightly so) with the complete lack of facilities in male toilets for disposing of incontinence pads. He attached some facts and figures from the charity Age UK, which stated there are around 3.2 million people over 65 suffering from urinary incontinence in the UK.

In more general terms, according to the NHS, it is estimated that between three and six million people in the UK may have some degree of urinary incontinence, and many of these will be men.

Age UK say that from a policy perspective, incontinence is an issue that we can ill afford to ignore. "Not only does it disrupt the daily lives of millions of older people, it can have a hugely detrimental effect on their health, dignity and well-being."

The professor believes that by providing sanitary waste bins in men's toilets, we could help dramatically improve the quality of life of sufferers. At the moment, the Government feels it sufficient to rely on general waste bins to dispose of incontinence waste.

However, many people feel this inadequate. Having to carry incontinence waste out of a private toilet cubicle to dispose of it in a general waste bin can cause embarrassment and distress for some.

Age UK continues: "Given the scale of the issue and the serious problems it causes, it is disappointing that access to good continence care remains so unreliable and patchy. Recent analysis published by the expert group on lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) which was endorsed by Age UK demonstrated, for example, that the majority of local authority commissioners do not view incontinence as a priority."

I was certainly disheartened when I read the professor's letter. I did however find some uplifting news from Germany, where a recent initiative led by the Federal Association of Prostate Self-Help (BPS) in association with the German Hotel and Restaurant Association (Dehoga) is promoting the supply of hygiene bins in men's toilets.

Called the ‘Initative für Hygienebehälter in Herrentoiletten', it aims to help men suffering from urinary incontinence enjoy an active social life without barriers. Legislation was also passed in Germany in 2013 which instructed establishments to install at least one hygiene bin (incorporating a lid so waste is hidden) in each men's washroom so that men can easily dispose of their hygiene waste.

So in conclusion, whose responsibility is it to start the conversation on these ‘taboo' but yet very important topics? Should we be coming together as an industry and as a collective group, to ask the questions that no-one else wants to ask, and lobby for better conditions for our customers?

I know that as a company, we will continue to bring to light important issues like these, especially ones in which individuals may not feel strong enough to push forward themselves.

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