Sue Hazleton, Hertfordshire Growth Hub
Until recently the menopause has been a bit of a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace. It’s not a new issue but it is one that has always silently affected many women at work. Although there has been much progress in recent years around gender equality, there is a growing awareness that this topic now needs to be addressed to build more inclusive working cultures.
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a natural stage of life which affects around half of the population and usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age. It is when a woman stops having periods and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally as oestrogen levels decline. In the UK, the average age for a person to go through menopause is 51, although around one in 100 women will go through the transition before the age of 40. Many women experience symptoms long before their periods stop, which is a phase known as the peri-menopause.
It may be no coincidence that the highest rate of suicide among women is between the ages of 45 to 54, but this is also a time of life when many women may experience changes in their family circumstances, such as caring for elderly relatives and/or children leaving home, which may be contributory factors to their mental health.
What are symptoms of the menopause?
Women can experience a range of uncomfortable cognitive, physical, psychological and emotional symptoms during and leading up to the menopause. Some common and debilitating symptoms can be:
Three out of four women experience symptoms of the menopause with one in four experiencing severe symptoms that impact on their day-today life. Symptoms can last from several months to many years and can lead to a loss of confidence and embarrassment. There is also new and emerging evidence of low oestrogen levels being associated with an individual having long COVID.
To reduce symptoms, there is advice around lifestyle changes alongside prescription medication (such as Hormone Replacement Therapy – HRT) or non-prescription treatments, but women can be reluctant to talk to their GP. Although not appropriate for all women, only 12% in the UK take HRT, one of the lowest rates in Europe, which may be linked to a flawed study in the early 2000s which led to misleading publicity about possible risk factors.
Why could the menopause be an issue for workplaces?
As our population now lives longer and works longer, with an increasing number of women in the workforce, a higher proportion of working women are at menopausal age. At present there are 3.5 million women over 50 in the workplace in the UK, with nearly eight out of ten menopausal women in work. However, menopause is not just a gender or age issue, as it can impact on colleagues both directly or indirectly, and it should therefore be considered as an organisational issue.
A BBC poll recently found that 70% of women did not make their employer aware they were experiencing menopausal symptoms. They might be worried about the impact it would have on their status within the workplace. They may also fear a lack of understanding from a male manager, or from a younger female boss. However, nearly half of respondents said the menopause had affected their mental health, while a quarter said it made them want to stay at home. Symptoms can therefore have a significant impact on attendance and performance in the workplace.
Many women begin to experience symptoms of the menopause or peri-menopause in their mid-to-late 40s, a time when most professionals are at or reaching the peak of their careers, which may negatively affect their career prospects. A recent CIPD survey found that 900,000 women in the UK gave up their careers or retired early because of menopausal symptoms, which can be a financial and organisational challenge for many workplaces.
What can employers do?
Like pregnancy and maternity leave, the menopause is only a temporary stage during a woman's overall working life. Not all women become pregnant, but all women go through the menopause. Increasing awareness and reducing stigma of the menopause and the impact it can have on a woman’s work-life is key to normalising conversations about the menopause and educating the whole organisation. All managers need to know about it, to not only support their female staff but also to be aware of the indirect effects of the menopause on women’s friends and families. Including male staff in menopause awareness raising can improve relationships not only in the workplace but in workers' personal lives too.
Employers do not necessarily have to make costly adjustments, but changes such as having a desk fan or moving to a desk that is near a window could be helpful. Some women may have difficulty sleeping so more flexible working may be appropriate, such as having a later start to work, missing the rush hour or a hybrid working model.
Some organisations have brought in menopause-specific policies which can provide guidance for managers and reassurance for employees on how menopause related issues will be managed and what support is available. A policy could also be helpful in retaining experienced employees.
There are laws to protect women when they are pregnant but there is no specific mention of the menopause. However, women are already protected in the workplace by a range of equality laws including the Equality Act 2010 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Women who believe they have been treated unfairly at work in relation to the menopause may be able to take legal action on the grounds of sex, disability or age discrimination and there have recently been several successful tribunal cases based on unfair dismissal, constructive dismissal and discrimination. The Employment Appeal Tribunal stated that the menopause could be considered a disability as it was a medically based condition that was likely to last for 12 months or more.
Further Information and Guidance
Acas has published updated menopause at work guidance which covers what employers and managers can do to support staff who are going through or experiencing the effects of the menopause. It includes tips for workers on how to raise any concerns and good practice guidance for employers to help manage menopause at work.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel (CIPD) and Development's Let's talk menopause’ resource helps managers to understand the barriers a colleague going through the menopause could potentially face, identify where appropriate adjustments could be implemented, and foster an inclusive working environment.
The Faculty of Occupational Medicine's (FOM) guidance on menopause and the workplace offers three-page practical guidelines which aim to help those experiencing menopausal symptoms and their line managers, including how to improve workplace environments.
The Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group's menopause at work guidance will help you to understand the principles that will support your organisation, line managers and the individual.
The British menopause Society provide a variety of educational videos surrounding the menopause to help educate line managers about the symptoms of the menopause and what it entails.
The link between menopause and gender inequity at work is a TED talk by Andrea Berchowitz, co-founder at Vira Health, who gives practical advice on creating menopause-friendly work cultures that support gender equity and diversity retention in the workplace.