Supporting menopause at work: The UK workforce is now over 50% female. 13 million women in the UK – that’s one in every three – are going through some stage of menopause. Employers must not ignore such a significant proportion of their staff going through a completely natural, but often debilitating, health condition.
What is menopause?
Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the first Menopause Summit in Wales. It brought together HR professionals and businesses, alongside women who were experiencing menopause, to discuss the difficulties relating to diagnosis, treatment and support within the workplace. As someone who has worked in HR for fifteen years, menopause has never been an issue I have had to deal with, or even consider. I feel ashamed for failing to recognise that so many women are affected by menopause, or realise that many women have been managed out of a business while they were potentially suffering in silence.
Now more than ever, I am motivated to ensure that we de-stigmatise menopause just as we have maternity and mental health. Nearly half of women (47%) surveyed, who are in employment and needed to take a day off because of the menopause, said they wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing the real reason to their employer or colleagues. Many women are also unaware that they are actually going through the menopause. As there are around 34 symptoms of menopause, it can be very difficult to obtain the correct diagnosis. This can make it hard to support employees going through this change, as they are sometimes unaware themselves of exactly what is happening.
The NHS website describes menopause as a natural part of ageing that usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline. In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach menopause is 51. However, around one in 100 women experience menopause before 40. Menopause can also be triggered at a younger age by a surgical removal of a woman’s ovaries.
Women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing workforce demographic.
How does menopause impact working women?
For businesses to remain competitive and inclusive, they must consider how to support women experiencing menopause whilst, potentially, at the peak of their career. Being supportive and understanding of the menopause symptoms that could impact women’s work and career is therefore vitally important.
Many describe a condition nicknamed ‘brain fog’, which refers to the impact on sufferers’ memory. This includes things such as walking into a room and forgetting why you are there, forgetting how to put a key in the front door of your house, or forgetting how to drive to work. Often, those who experience this worry that they may have early-onset dementia. In terms of day-to-day work, this can translate into forgetting deadlines, how to find a file on the computer or repeatedly asking for assistance with the same issue.
Other symptoms, such as hot flushes, can cause embarrassment, especially in environments where uniform must be worn. Insomnia is a widespread symptom; this may affect an individual’s ability to concentrate, or they may experience mood swings as a result of exhaustion. Hormonal changes can also lead to anxiety and depression.
Why employers need to make support a priority
The UK workforce is now over 50% female. 13 million women in the UK – that’s one in every three – are going through some stage of menopause. Employers must not ignore such a significant proportion of their staff going through a completely natural, but often debilitating, health condition.
In addition, menopause-related cases are appearing in employment tribunals. In the case of Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services, Ms Davies suffered from menopausal symptoms and had been prescribed medication. Her medication was kept on her desk, along with a jug of water. She came into work to find things had been moved, with two men drinking from the jug of water. Ms Davies checked that her colleagues hadn’t taken her medication and she was subsequently subjected to harassment. There was no medication in the water, but she was dismissed for gross misconduct. The ET ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed.
It is important to remember that whilst menopause itself is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, the symptoms associated with menopause may be defined as a disability. Protection may also be provided via sex or age discrimination laws.
Supporting employees through this transition can save the business money when it comes to recruitment, reducing sickness/absence costs as well as minimising potential employee relations costs if an employee was not adequately supported.
Top tips for employers
- Make reasonable adjustments. Some easy changes can include: providing additional uniforms and/or a desk fan, introducing flexible working practices and allowing time off for appointments. Ensure you support individuals on a case-by-case basis, as one reasonable adjustment may not suit someone else’s circumstances.
- Upskill managers (all genders) on how to support employees going through menopause. Managers must remember that they do not need to be ‘menopause experts’, but should be able to make reasonable adjustments and create a supportive environment where these issues can be discussed openly and resolved.
- Look at adding ‘Menopause Support’ to your wellbeing strategy. Consider appointing ‘menopause champions’ or upskilling existing wellbeing representatives to provide support to menopausal employees.
An employee going through a hormonal transition does not become worse at their job. With the right support mechanisms in place, individual performance can be maintained and businesses can benefit from improved employee retention and loyalty.