Smashing the taboo of menopause in the workplace

Portrait of happy senior woman holding eyeglasses and looking at camera at home. Successful old lady laughing and working at home, menopause

Cat Macdonald, Independent HR consultant and founder of True HR

Tuesday October 18 is World Menopause Day, when organisations across the globe join forces to raise awareness of the menopause and the support available for improving women’s health and wellbeing.

And while awareness days such as this are to be welcomed – it doesn’t seem long since the ‘M’ word was never mentioned in polite company at all – there is still much to be done to make it less of an issue in the workplace.

Despite it being a perfectly natural phase that half the entire population of the world will experience, it remains a taboo subject both at work and in the wider community.

A study by Nuffield Health Group found that one in four women struggled to cope with the symptoms with almost half (45 per cent) not even realising they could be experiencing the menopause; 42 per cent thought they were too young and had put their symptoms down to stress.

Equally worryingly, two thirds (67 per cent) thought there was little support available for those experiencing the menopause.

In the workplace specifically, another survey[1] found almost a third of working women aged between 50 and 64 were reluctantly taking time off to alleviate menopausal symptoms – that’s the equivalent of 14 million working days.

More than half felt they had to work over to make up for the time they had lost – equating to more than two million women working in their own time as a result of something out of their control.

Some had even left or considered leaving their jobs – or employment altogether – as dealing with symptoms in the workplace was so difficult. Others had considered working part-time, despite the concern about the impact on their career and their pay packet.

It’s a sad fact that the menopause is still not always treated with the same understanding as other health issues. While we typically do not consider menopause to be a ‘disability’ under employment legislation definitions it can have a significant effect on a woman’s ability to work and more women acknowledge this impact. The latest UK data shows that menopause was mentioned in 16 employment tribunals in 2020, compared with only five in 2018.   

When businesses implement policies for their female employees, many only consider those relating to maternity and pregnancy, with menopause often being overlooked altogether.

A study of 1,400 women by the CIPD found that menopause workplace guidelines were often unaccounted for within businesses. Sometimes the workplace itself can be an issue, having not been designed with menopausal women in mind.

It’s not uncommon for women themselves to find they are unprepared for the onset of the menopause so are even less equipped to manage its symptoms at work. Coping with symptoms such as hot flushes, mood swings and poor concentration can be tough and some women are, understandably, embarrassed or even afraid to talk to their employer about it – particularly if their line manager is young and/or male.

A workplace issue

The trade union Unison considers the impact of menopausal symptoms on female workers is both an occupational health issue and an equality issue. It has launched a dedicated guide, The Menopause is a Workplace Issueaimed at supporting employers looking to create a working environment where female staff feel supported.

The guide highlights how symptoms such as migraines and panic attacks are an occupational health issue and can have a significant effect on employees, despite often being trivialised or treated as embarrassing by bosses and colleagues.

While some women may cope well with the physical and emotional changes, for others they may cause particular difficulties both in work and out of work.

In its guidance, the union notes that the menopause is not confined to women exclusively in their late forties or early fifties. It can affect younger women through a premature or a medical menopause as a result of surgery, while transgender people can also experience symptoms.

What companies can do

Education is key to a better understanding and developing a menopause policy or guidance document will inform managers and employees.

Make it an open conversation, not a taboo. Provide a culture where women feel comfortable about discussing their symptoms and the impact it has on their working lives – you could run a workshop on dealing with the symptoms at work and at home or set up a forum where women can talk and share experiences.

There are various actions that businesses can take, both on a policy and a practical level. These include:

  • Promoting awareness of the typical symptoms and the simple changes that can support women through the transition to all employees. It’s important to use gender-neutral language where possible, to help get male employees on board.
  • Improve support for line managers and engage senior managers in the conversation.
  • Provide information on how women experiencing the menopause can get the support they need.
  • Review existing policies on time off and sickness.
  • Offer flexible working to those who are experiencing symptoms.
  • Identify adjustments in the workplace, such as moving someone’s workstation away from a source of heat, providing fans and access to cool drinking water and adapting uniforms.
  • Improve access to support, whether formal or informal.

It is vital that employers find ways to support their female employees during this time. To reduce the stigma, managers need to be educated about the symptoms and possible effects that the menopause can have.

Greater awareness of the menopause as a real occupational health issue. If symptoms go unnoticed, they can lead to exhaustion, depersonalisation, stress and ultimately burnout – so provision should be made and awareness clearly reflected in company policy and guidelines.

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