Menopause and the workplace – why it’s not just a women’s issue

“The change”, “the time of life”, “senior moments” – all euphemisms for a time in a woman’s life when she needs your support at work 

This week I have been looking at the menopause from a work perspective. Read on, even if you are not directly impacted by what is often called “the change”. The average age at which a woman goes through the change in the UK is 51, however it can start at any time after puberty, so it isn’t restricted to older employees. 1 in 100 women go through the menopause before the age of 40. Also, as a man, you may not be directly affected, but someone you know will be at some point – mother, daughter, sister, wife, or indeed employer, colleague, employee.

It’s a sensitive area, where employees are embarrassed to discuss the impact of their symptoms because they are personal but also because they don’t want to be perceived as weak or unable to cope at work for fear of being targeted for redundancy. It may well be one of the last workplace taboos that the diversity agenda needs to embrace. As with any condition you happen to suffer from, there is extra stress involved when you feel like you have to cover it up at work. I believe menopause is a wellbeing issue, falling as it does somewhere between and across physical, mental and occupational health. If managers have no awareness of these issues because no-one is prepared to talk about them, this is a tragedy not just for women but for everyone on the payroll. Businesses have a social responsibility to promote the quality of life of their employees to the best of their ability whilst they spend a significant proportion of their week at work.

Last weekend I attended a workshop at my local City Council in Bristol which explored what women wanted from a coordinated local service around the menopause. Menopause is a major event in people’s lives but is generally not spoken about with the result that the appropriate help and support is not made available generally or in the workplace. The scale of the issue is daunting, but I am just focussing on issues in the workplace in this article.

Most businesses employ women. In the UK, 70% of women of working age are in employment, representing approximately 47% of the UK workforce. Of those, 3.5 million are aged over 50. Note that the normal age range for the female menopause is 45 to 55, and the number of workers impacted can only increase as we are required to work longer before collecting state pensions. It has been estimated that 80% of women going through the menopause suffer from noticeable symptoms, and 45% experience symptoms which are difficult to deal with; some experience very little by way of symptoms, and yet can still suffer from the stigma of growing old in the workplace. That makes for a lot of women in the workforce going through what can be a stressful and uncomfortable phase in their life without formal support at work – few businesses have an HR policy around the menopause, or sufficient guidance for management.

The menopause is not an illness, it is the name for a natural phase in a woman’s life when the levels of the hormone oestrogen decline, leading to hormone imbalances with some unpleasant physical side effects. Other underlying medical conditions or indeed surgery can also result in a premature menopause. These side effects are symptoms not unlike those which cause employees to call in sick with other ailments. Some of the symptoms however can be managed and employers can help by adapting the employee’s work environment, similarly to if they were returning to work after surgery, or dealing with a temporary physical or mental health condition – the menopause is “temporary” in that it will pass, but it can take many years for the symptoms to completely subside.

Symptoms that can impact performance in the workplace include:

  • Hot flushes - sudden extremes in temperature
  • Difficulty sleeping due to night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Aching joints and muscles
  • Low mood or anxiety
  • Problems with memory or concentration
  • Irritability.

Of course, your main ally during the menopause is your doctor – find one who has as much knowledge and experience as possible in the field: as with all conditions, some General Practitioners are more informed than others. Your practice receptionist should be able to guide you to the best doctor in your practice - don’t just assume it is one of the female doctors. Treatments range from simple common sense approaches to alleviate some of the milder symptoms (such as wearing cooler clothing to deal with the hot flushes and sweats, or lifestyle changes) to medical intervention such as Hormone Replacement Therapy (“HRT”) which addresses the hormone imbalance until the body readjusts, a process that can take several years. For information on the medical side of things, see this article from the UK’s National Health Service website.

So how can businesses support their employees through this difficult time? The UK’s largest federation of trade unions, the TUC, has come up with guidance in “Supporting Women Through the Menopause” and “Working Through the Change” – see links to these documents and a summary at the TUC website. It all makes interesting reading, and it helps organisations comply with age and sex discrimination law. In the UK workplace discrimination based on gender or age is illegal under the Equality Act – British Telecom was the subject of the first successful employment tribunal in 2012, where direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal were proven after the plaintiff was dismissed for under-performance, despite providing a medical note documenting that her poor concentration was due to the menopause. Note also that employers already have statutory duties to provide certain facilities to all employees, so the adjustment needed for menopausal women is not onerous and certainly worth the effort given the number of employees potentially impacted. Examples of organisations that have put forward best practice approaches to the issue in the UK are Marks & Spencer and the Police Service. M&S has a high number of female employees and its wellbeing programme supports them via training to line managers as well as a specialist occupational health team to help secure any adjustments required. The British Association for Women in Policing actively encourages men to attend their sessions to promote understanding across the Police Service and even commissioned their own research by the University of Nottingham.

The recommendations to employers are not overwhelmingly expensive – here are some of the suggestions that can easily be implemented to make the work environment more supportive for women during the menopause, depending on the symptoms:

  • Provide a break out room for women to go when the symptoms are severe – a room available to pregnant or breastfeeding women could be made available to menopausal women too
  • Relocation of desks nearer the window or provision of fans
  • Plentiful supply of cold water
  • A general culture of more frequent or as needed comfort breaks
  • Rotation of duties that require standing up for long periods
  • Re-thinking nylon uniforms – cotton is more comfortable
  • Adapting the workspace to allow your employee to continue working and meet work goals whilst having different needs from other employees –similar to health and safety or occupational health assessment
  • Allowing part-time or flexible hours, or flexible arrangements such as working from home, to help an employee manage some of the more severe symptoms (every worker has the right to request to work flexibly, see my earlier post)
  • Provide access to an employee assistance scheme as part of your benefit package for confidential support at any stage in their career
  • Adapt the sickness policy to take into account the temporary adjustments that need to be made to keep an employee productive, and to allow for additional health screening appointments that may be necessary
  • Encourage or start a women’s network to ensure issues like menopause are discussed openly.

The obvious economic benefit of keeping a good employee in the business can be compared to that experienced by businesses who offer good maternity and paternity leave arrangements – in a competitive market, good employees who know your industry are hard to find and expensive to replace, and equally by treating them well in the first place, you keep them loyal. Looking ahead, Women in Leadership type programmes and the general move toward more equality at a senior level within organisations can also help to bring about a more supportive environment for older women in the workplace. Women working in predominantly male environments are likely to find broaching the subject harder – younger men with little experience of the condition may only know of the menopause from the popular misconceptions portrayed in the media and sit-coms: weepy, hormonal creatures to be avoided at all costs, when all they want is to be treated as an equal.

But it’s not just the employer who needs to adapt to your menopause - here are some simple tips for sufferers, to make the working day easier and more comfortable:

  • Get to a meeting room first so you can check/change the room temperature or find the coolest place to sit
  • Buy a USB operated fan for your desk – you won’t always be able to control the temperature of the whole room (I've worked in offices where you can’t even open a window anymore) but you can make your space cooler when you need to
  • Eat healthily and avoid foods that trigger symptoms for you
  • Take regular exercise and fresh air – avoid having lunch at your desk, or worse, skipping lunch.

Why is it so important for employers to take note and provide a more supportive environment, and how do men benefit? The menopause should be treated as supportively as pregnancy, which is argued very eloquently by a team of researchers at the University of Leicester. The article isn't asking for special treatment for menopausal women, just for organisations to normalise the experience so it can be discussed at work without fear of judgment or stigma. Nor do they suggest that middle age is easy for men – they are equally challenged in midlife and that can also be acknowledged by an organisation’s wellbeing programme. 

For a really interesting read on the topic, look at author Jeanette Winterson’s own personal investigation of HRT – it goes well beyond the practical and everyday, and into the realms of feminism and even environmentalism.

The last word has to go to the Queen of British midlife comedy, Victoria Wood, RIP – we have people like Victoria to thank for the fact that we speak about these matters at all, never mind post LinkedIn articles about them.

Next week, I will be looking at skills shortages, and the recent Budget announcement to boost funding for schools in Maths and Sciences. What is coding, and are we (and our children) so far behind the rest of the world?

Until next week!