The menopause affects most women in their lifetime, some severely and some barely at all. Defined as the time beginning with a woman’s last period (in the UK the average age is 51 years old), menopause symptoms start in the mid-forties and can go on for more than a decade.
The list of symptoms is extensive, including irregular and extremely heavy periods, hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, fluctuating moods, depression, forgetfulness, fatigue and headaches to name just a few.
The menopause continues to be largely unrecognised as a workplace issue, despite the fact it has significant implications for female workers. Some women are regularly absent from work or give up their jobs altogether rather than seek support from their employer. In 2017 a Government Equalities Office-funded study showed that around one in 10 menopausal women suffer severe symptoms, with an estimated absence-related cost of around £7.3 million.
With more than 4.3 million over-50 women in work in the UK (according to ONS figures), the need for employers to support women going through the menopause has never been more critical.
So what can employers do? Here are five steps to improving your organisation’s support system for menopausal women in the workplace.
1. Cultural change
“The first step is to open up the conversation in your workplace,” says Ros Altmann, business champion for older workers and former work and pensions minister. “HR can definitely do much to support the workforce. Both male and female staff are unlikely to openly discuss this issue as it is still one of the last taboos in the workplace.”
Altmann says that, in the same way mental health is no longer such a taboo, an open forum must also be created around the menopause so that it becomes a key component of workplace wellbeing strategies.
2. Support groups
A culture of openness and support can be underpinned by informal support networks such as those that have flourished at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Staff at HMRC set up a voluntary menopause support group, with nominated champions across the organisation, creating a support community that empowers menopausal women to self-manage as well as to share their knowledge with others. Support networks are springing up in other organisations too, such as at Marks & Spencer, Severn Trent Water and BAE Systems, as well as widely across UK police forces.
According to Sarah Davies, co-founder and director of Talking Menopause, an organisation that offers training and guidance to businesses and individuals on menopause-related issues, running workshops can help to demystify the symptoms and challenges of the menopause. “More importantly,” she says, “they can help equip managers with the tools to normalise the menopause at work. It’s about productivity and giving managers a broader outlook and the flexibility to implement change.”
As menopause climbs higher on the workplace wellbeing agenda, resources and guides are being created by some organisations. Trade union body Wales TUC has produced a comprehensive toolkit for employers to refer to. It includes a symptom checklist, risk assessment and example workplace policies. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine has also released information in the form of online guidance and e-notes.
4. Practical changes
As well as providing emotional support and training for managers, there are a number of practical changes employers can implement to improve conditions for menopausal employees. Lynda Bailey, co-founder of Talking Menopause and an inspector at West Midlands Police until 2016, went through the menopause while working there. Her own experiences led her to introduce a comprehensive strategy at West Midlands Police that now offers, in addition to support groups and group and one-to-one training, a ‘reasonable adjustment passport’. This ‘passport’ gives women the opportunity to explain their personal symptoms and suggest how their employer can improve and adjust working conditions accordingly. Suggestions include providing desk fans, ensuring unlimited access to cold drinking water, appropriate environmental temperature control and natural light, natural fabric choices for uniforms, noise exposure reduction, accessible rest areas, and support and counselling.
“The key to all this is getting to a point where it isn’t an issue,” says therapist, coach and founder of Menopause Support Diane Danzebrink. “To implement these simple measures is a total win-win situation, and there is no reason every single business cannot start to implement some of these things.”
5. Flexible working
One other simple but fundamental practical change comes in the form of flexible working. The Wales TUC toolkit suggests that changes should be made to working times, ‘including adjustments to start/finish times, reduced hours, options for home working and additional breaks, and leave should be granted at short notice where necessary.’ Wales TUC equality and policy officer Rhianydd Williams says it’s an important consideration for employers: “Do you provide flexible working patterns, is your workload excessive, is there job creep? You need to address these things to see if they’re happening in your workplace.”