Employers' failure to effectively support female employees through the menopause is currently costing the UK economy millions each year. A recent report by the Government Equalities Office estimates annual absence-related losses at around £7.3 million.
A lack of understanding around the process means that the menopause is now having a serious impact on women’s economic participation. There are now more women over 50 in British workplaces than ever, with one in three workers expected to sit in this category by 2020. With ambitious boardroom diversity and gender pay gap deadlines to meet, employers need to take the issue seriously.
Education and open discussion
Breaking down the stigma and opening up a dialogue around the menopause is a crucial starting point. At present a taboo surrounds the subject, which leaves women uncomfortable raising the issue with colleagues, or requesting necessary leave or extra support from line managers. Beyond pregnancy, gender-specific health issues are rarely discussed in the workplace. This needs to change and education is vital.
A key issue lies in the limited understanding many employers and staff possess when it comes to the menopause. The experience is a complex one and can vary drastically from person to person. Symptoms can be wide-ranging; 33 are now known and listed, including tiredness, lack of concentration, and problems regulating temperature ('hot flushes'). Women can experience any combination of these, and staff need to be educated about the full range of possible effects on their employees or colleagues.
Resources, education and organisation-wide training sessions will help promote awareness and the right attitude. Without this employers risk exposing female employees to an unsupportive environment, where they are unable to flag concerns or explain gaps in performance where they arise in direct relation to symptoms.
There are a range of support mechanisms employers can put in place to help women going through the menopause. Speaking to employees and finding out what would benefit each, according to individual circumstances or experience, can be useful. Feedback can then be used to create a tailored plan or set of working conditions to help employees manage the process.
Flexible working practices, including late starts and early finishes, can be hugely beneficial when it comes to scheduling medical appointments, or dealing with issues like fatigue or disturbed sleep. The option to work from home can also be helpful when experiencing more uncomfortable or potentially embarrassing symptoms. Allowing those undergoing the transition the space and flexibility they feel necessary is important.
Simple changes to office environments can also make a difference. Sensitivity when it comes to heating and air conditioning systems, allocated cool or warm areas, desk fans and access to cold drinking water will be hugely valued by those experiencing issues with temperature for instance.
Access to coaching programmes, mentors and occupational health services is also important. A support system, or just the knowledge that it is there if needed, can make all the difference to women undergoing the menopause transition. Professionals who understand exactly what women are going through will be best-placed to offer guidance.
The varied experiences of women undergoing the menopause also means that flexibility is key. Organisational policy and approach may need to be determined on a case-by case basis, and employers should be ready to adapt.
The unique strengths and perspectives that female leaders bring to organisations are well-researched and documented. Without effective support systems in place for those going through the menopause, employers risk losing valuable talent at a crucial point. It is therefore well worth investing the time and resources in assisting staff through this inevitable change.
Kate Pearlman-Shaw is a partner at GatenbySanderson