Menopause in the workplace – What concessions should be made?

Over the last few years businesses, HR departments and employees have changed their expectations around wellbeing, mental health and health and safety – policies and procedures have been changed and amended to reflect the change in requirements and needs. Pregnancy is considered and provided for, and some organisations even allocate specific leave for fertility treatment to ensure women needing this support still get sufficient holiday too. So why is it that provision for the menopause is so woefully lacking.

It’s an interesting situation, and a little confusing, as 1 in 3 women in the workplace are of menopausal age. So why is this consistently overlooked for such a large proportion of the workforce?

The average age for the menopause in the UK is 51.  Although, there are many cases of premature menopause and premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), which affects approximately 1 in 100 women in the UK. Physical & psychological symptoms are reported to exist on average for 8 years, which is a large percentage of a woman’s working life.

Whilst some women notice almost no symptoms, the majority (around 80%) experience very noticeable changes and symptoms.

With 4.4 million women aged 50-64 in the workplace (ONS2019) this group represents a large proportion of our UK workforce and many sectors such as education, health and social care will have a particularly high proportion of women. According to the Government report on menopause, this is the fastest growing workforce demographic and 8 out of 10 peri menopausal women are working in some capacity or other – so why the silence, why the discomfort and what needs to change?

It is a sad truth that many women lie about their reason for absence during this phase and in the worst cases may leave work as a last resort. It’s reported that they don’t feel comfortable to cite and share the true reason for absence, using other excuses instead. This approach in itself makes the situation worse and exacerbates their feelings of vulnerability.

With more women in the workplace than ever before, reviewing your menopause policy is an investment in future generations, plus organisations who have more women at the top perform better financially. There are many benefits of raising the awareness and talking about this subject – removing the stigma and the taboo of something that happens to every single woman. If organisations increased retention among female staff, not only would they increase the knowledge base and bottom line, but they would increase diversity at senior levels too. In recent years, there have been notable cases where women have been performance managed out of organisations as a result of menopause and then successfully won tribunal cases for substantial sums. Businesses need to consider whether they can afford the revenue and reputational cost.

There are too many myths about the risks of talking about this topic too ….. can people really believe that talking about this inevitable, unavoidable, normal and natural process can be seen as a weakness or disadvantage? You would be surprised just how many women do think this way. Yes, some people may feel uncomfortable and embarrassed initially and that’s perfectly normal – it’s not a topic that’s historically been discussed at home or at work.  However, a tailored approach aligned with your company values, mission and culture means that this feeling quickly dissipates.  It’s replaced with an environment in which people can openly and comfortably instigate and participate in conversations about menopause in a respectful and supportive manner.  Fostering an open culture of respect, communication and care around sensitive issues can have a direct impact on other important workplace discussions and issues too. In order to create an equitable workplace where everyone can be effective in their roles, we need to acknowledge and support all employees at all levels and through all career and life stages and transitions – we’ve come a long way with educating employers and employees around pregnancy, motherhood and return to work – we now need the same approach and commitment to menopause.

Whatever the driver to raising menopause awareness, education and support, it’s the right thing to do for inclusion, diversity and equality. And it’s something that both men and women need to know about.

Everyone recognises the stereotypical hot flushes, but what the majority of people don’t realise is the range of menopausal symptoms. Last year saw the results of the biggest menopause at work survey with the Government Research Team, Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace and the TUC. It received nearly 5,400 responses. It was widely reported that fatigue and insomnia, difficulty focusing or concentrating, anxiety and worry and memory recall were the main symptoms cited by women as affecting them most at work. The Henpicked survey highlighted that certain aspects of the work environment could actually make symptoms worse. High temperatures and humidity, poor ventilation, noise, stress and no access to a quiet or restful space all featured as environmental factors that make menopausal symptoms worse or harder to manage.

But what about the non-physical symptoms? Women frequently report that they are clearer on how to handle physical symptoms, but it’s the psychological ones that challenge them the most and are hardest to manage. Getting help to manage these psychological symptoms is notoriously difficult, with many women reporting that they get prescribed anti-depressants by GPs’ when Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is actually what they need.

This all adds up to a large proportion of our working population affected. Each woman experiences the menopause transition differently and support needs to be on a case-by-case basis. That said, it’s often small changes, maybe even over a short period of time that can make a big difference. Line managers at our training sessions are often relieved to see the range of simple, practical and reasonable adjustments. They are not onerous.

Our sessions show that women would like to talk to other women and share their experiences – have more information and seek support and guidance. Employers can provide this and helping this group of employees is possible, easy and beneficial commercially too.

When a topic like menopause is embedded as a mainstream topic across an organisation, it can generate engagement, improve gender parity and ensure that you stand out as an employer of choice where both your current and future talent can thrive.  Many businesses have already seen the benefits of committing to a menopause awareness programme in conjunction with other initiatives around wellness, mental health, and general employee support.

There is no doubt, that it’s a personal topic, but then so are other issues such as LGBT, neurodiversity, and other EDI topics. There should still be a framework in the workplace to allow for discussions, signposting and support.  It’s imperative that leaders who want to see their culture and work environment develop and thrive as safe places where people can express who they choose to be and be valued for who they are, must address this issue in the same way that all the other “protected characteristics” are managed and prioritised.

If you are thinking about updating your policies with regards to menopause, then please contact Nicky Valmas at nicky@connor.co.uk. For all other information on how we can support your organisation with policy reviews and updates, please visit our Outsourced HR Support Services page.

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