About half the population will experience the menopause at some point in their lives, so why is it so often unacknowledged in the workplace?
The menopause is frequently seen as a taboo topic at work, rarely discussed except in hushed tones or uncomfortable jokes. But it affects a large percentage of the working population, often seriously impacting their ability to work normally. It’s time for business leaders to put it on the wellbeing agenda.
The fastest growing sector in the workforce today is women over the age of 50, and about a third of working women are in the core ‘menopause age’ – defined as between 50 and 64, although the age of onset can be younger too. Research suggests that menopause symptoms result in the loss of 14 million working days every year in the UK.
Yet the fact is that modern workplaces and work practices aren’t designed with the needs of menopausal people in mind. This failure to address menopause doesn’t just impact individuals’ wellbeing, it harms workplace productivity too.
How menopause affects work
The physical changes and psychological symptoms that come with menopause are minor for some, but others find the symptoms so serious that it’s difficult to keep working as usual. Hot flushes, sleeping problems, headaches, memory loss, joint aches, anxiety and palpitations are all associated with menopause, making work difficult and at times impossible. One in 10 women experience these symptoms for up to 12 years, which will clearly have a significant impact on the quality of their working life.
In a Wales TUC survey, 9 in 10 respondents who were experiencing or had experienced menopause said it negatively affected them at work. Some comments described work cultures that were unaccommodating and unsympathetic, and many referred to the challenge of managing symptoms coupled with insensitive responses from workplaces. One woman explained her experience:
“Sometimes I was extremely hot and other times so cold I couldn’t concentrate and felt ill. I felt lost alone and completely ‘not me’ and I was experiencing extreme stress, but when I mentioned how I felt I was told my job wasn’t stressful and it made me feel completely useless.”
Others who’d experienced menopause at work said they’d taken a significant amount of sick leave because of the severity of symptoms, resulting in their being disciplined or being seen as “underachieving”. And a quarter of those experiencing it had considered leaving work entirely because of it.
The same TUC study “identified a profound ignorance on the part of managers as to the effect of the menopause on the workplace”. For many respondents, the issue wasn’t that leaders had managed the menopause conversation badly but that it went completely unacknowledged. TUC’s research suggests that both the gender and the age of line managers affects how they react when the topic is brought up at work, with many participants saying male managers failed to respond to it sensitively and some finding that even female bosses were dismissive of the symptoms.
We know that some employers are yet to address the ‘basics’ of workplace wellbeing. For them, creating a comprehensive policy on dealing with menopause may be too big an ask. But there is a need, and a desire, for this sort of wellbeing initiative. TUC’s research suggested that less than 1% of respondents were aware of their workplace having specific policies for people experiencing menopause, yet almost 90% would welcome them.
Changing the climate
One organisation that’s successfully changed the climate around menopause to enhance its workforce capability is Network Rail. The company viewed improving its recruitment and retention of female talent as an important step towards delivering its strategic targets, and saw addressing the menopause as one element of this. Head of HR Janet Trowse says this links into other workplace issues, including “the gender pay gap, increased awareness around sexual harassment and equal pay claim tribunal wins”.
Trowse knew that robust data and the business imperative to retain female employees in the ‘menopause age’ were essential to making a strong business case. She worked with the organisation’s Diversity & Inclusion Project Manager to create a budget-neutral vision for addressing the issue, bringing together a range of factors including wellbeing, talent attraction, health and safety and organisational performance. They created a suite of accessible and engaging resources, with input from medical experts, which were available to all staff through a range of different media. Their project has resulted in a significant impact in awareness of and support for menopause across the organisation, and the duo are keen to share their insights with other organisations too.
Next on the agenda
For businesses that already have comprehensive wellbeing programmes in place, the example of Network Rail’s success demonstrates the strength of the case for menopause to be the next issue to be put on the wellbeing agenda. Policies should recognise the wide range in severity of symptoms, and be used alongside education to arm leaders with the knowledge and sensitivity to respond appropriately when menopausal issues arise in the workplace.
Like many workplace adjustments, those associated with menopause are likely to be free or very low-cost, like making desk fans available and encouraging flexible working. And other elements of a successful workplace wellbeing programme, like initiatives aimed at reducing stress, intersect with menopause accommodations too.
As people stay in the workforce for longer, leaders should already be considering how they’ll make wellbeing policies work for their older demographic. Opening up the conversation around menopause and normalising adjustments for it is just one aspect of this.
What can employers do to accommodate those experiencing menopause?
- Provide training for line managers so they’re aware of how menopause can affect work and what adjustments can be made to support those experiencing it.
- Make resources on dealing with menopause freely available at work, signalling to your people that it’s not a taboo topic.
- Ensure flexible working is available where possible, and make it clear that sickness absence procedures and policies apply to menopause-related absence too.