Why the menopause should no longer be a taboo subject in the workplace

Written by Dr Louise Newson on 8 October 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

In advance of World Menopause Day (18 Oct), Dr Louise Newson tells TJ why we need to talk about it more.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

With more than 4m women over 50 currently employed in the UK, it’s time to break the taboo around the menopause and make it everyone’s business.

As a GP specialising in the menopause, I regularly meet women struggling to keep their career on track while coping with menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, crushing fatigue and concentration problems.

Many say they feel embarrassed disclosing their symptoms in the workplace, while others suffer a crisis of confidence and won’t put themselves forward for promotion. Yet the menopause needn’t be a barrier to a long and fulfilling career.

I know from working with organisations like West Midlands Police that when employers take a proactive and sensitive approach to the menopause, it can help reduce absenteeism, boost retention and create a culture where women can be open with colleagues and managers.

The menopause needn’t be a barrier to a long and fulfilling career.

What is the menopause?

It is the time in a woman’s life when she hasn’t had a period for a year. The ovaries stop producing eggs and levels of the sex hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone fall.

The average age of menopause for UK women is 51 and fluctuating hormone levels can lead to troublesome symptoms like low mood, memory lapses, joint pains and urinary tract infections.

How the menopause affects women in the workplace

Earlier this year, I surveyed 1,132 women on the impact of symptoms of the menopause and perimenopause (the time just before the menopause) on work performance.

Findings included:

  • More than nine out of ten (94%) felt their symptoms negatively impacted on work
  • 9% had a disciplinary as a result of poor performance
  • 51% of respondents reported having time off work due to their symptoms
  • A further 51% had reduced their working hours, while 32% considered quitting their job altogether.

These findings are clear: menopausal women are struggling and need practical support to retain the experience, talent and expertise they bring to the workplace.

A 2017 government-commissioned review into the effects of symptoms on women’s working lives found that unlike pregnancy or maternity, the menopause isn’t well understood or provided for in workplace culture, policies or training.

Yet a growing number of organisations are seeing the menopause for what it is – an occupational health issue – and are taking proactive steps to support their workforce.

How employers can help

While no specific legislation yet exists to cover the menopause in the workplace, employers have a legal duty to ensure working conditions don’t exacerbate someone's symptoms - and to protect employees from discrimination.

 

A key starting point is drawing up a menopause policy, which could include:

Menopause awareness training

As L&D practitioners, you have a vital role in helping shape the menopause culture in your workplace.

Comprehensive awareness training for all staff is key. It should include when and why the menopause occurs, symptoms and the potential impact upon work. Tips on initiating conversations about the menopause and ways to offer support should also be covered. Using humour can help make training a positive experience.

Practical changes make all the difference

Providing a desktop fan or offering a workstation near an opening window or away from a heat source can really help women with hot flushes.

A ‘menopause passport’ – a record listing any adjustments already agreed – should also be considered in larger organisations where people move between departments.

Be flexible

Employers should be open to any flexible working requests where possible. This could include a later starting time if insomnia is an issue, or working from home to aid concentration. Flexibility could be the difference between tackling symptoms or a woman feeling like she has no choice but to leave her job.

Clear, accessible menopause information

In my survey three quarters (76%) of women said that their employer didn’t offered any menopause information or support. This has to change.



Information could be displayed on noticeboards or a dedicated menopause page on staff intranet sites. These resources should link to further medical advice (such as the NHS website www.nhs.uk and www.menopausedoctor.co.uk ) and contact details for human resources or occupational health. This can also be a helpful resource for employees whose partners are going through the menopause.

It is really important that women with menopausal symptoms have access to evidence based and non-biased information. For the majority of women, having the right dose and type of HRT can really improve their symptoms as well as lead to health benefits such as reduced future risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Set up a menopause forum

Give employees time and space to meet with others to share experiences. One woman who attended one such forum at West Midlands Police said it was ‘the first time I’ve felt that everything has fallen into place for me.’

Above all, remember every woman’s menopause is different. Some women have mild symptoms, others endure them for several years.

What is crucial is that each woman is listened to and that employers are prepared to tailor any support. With the right policies in place, talented and valuable team members can continue to thrive for many years to come.

 

About the author

Dr Louise Newson is a GP specialising in the menopause and author of the Haynes Menopause Manual, available from https://haynes.com/en-gb/menopause

 

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