menopause in the workplace is urgent and important

Menopause and work: why it’s so important

Menopause and work. What does one have to do with the other?

menopause and work is urgent and importantSometimes nothing. And it would be great if that was always the case. Some women sail through their menopause with barely a symptom, but it’s not an easy transition for all.

By talking about it openly, raising awareness and putting the right support in place, perhaps we could get to a point where menopause is no longer an issue in the workplace at all.

But, today, it’s hidden with potentially significant consequences for both employees and employers.

The scale of the issue

According to Professor Jo Brewis, co-author Government Report on Menopause, ‘menopausal women are the fastest growing workforce demographic’, which is highlighted by the Office of National Statistics.

We could quote lots of statistics and surveys, but just taking a few, the situation starts to reveal itself:

  • There are 3.5 million women over 50 in the workplace.
  • The average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51.
  • It can be earlier than this, naturally or due to surgery, or illness. And symptoms may start years before menopause, called perimenopause.
  • According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM), nearly 8 out of 10 of menopausal women are in work.
  • 3 out of 4 women experience symptoms, 1 in 4 could experience serious symptoms.
  • One in three of the workforce will soon be over 50, and retirement ages are now 68.

Menopause has always been around but menopausal women are now the fastest growing workforce demographic. A more compelling picture starts to emerge.

We’re an ageing population, with fewer new entrants from education joining the workforce, organisations need to look after their ‘older’ workers to have the talent they need to run their businesses.

Fellow co-author of The Government Report on menopause, Dr Andrea Davies, added ‘Menopause and work – it’s a two-way street. Work is good for menopausal women. It contributes far more than just a salary, it can provide fulfilment, self-esteem, identity and social needs too. But working environments like those with lack of temperature control, cramped conditions, some uniforms and stress can also make menopause symptoms worse’.

How menopause can impact on work

All women experience menopause differently. Symptoms can be physical, such as hot flushes, headaches, poor sleep and erratic periods, or psychological, such as anxiety, low mood, lack of confidence and poor concentration. We’ve found that most people are surprised at the range of symptoms.

The FOM say that almost half of women don’t seek medical advice and the majority of women don’t feel comfortable talking about menopause with their line managers. We’ve found this to be true at our colleague awareness sessions.

It could be the current negative perception of menopause and some women being embarrassed to talk about it. And/or the general lack of accurate knowledge and women not being aware that what they are experiencing is due to fluctuating hormones during the menopause.

We’ve found that when women do understand the symptoms and ways to manage them, their lives (and work) can get back to normal quickly.

Alarmingly, in some cases menopausal symptoms can lead to women leaving their jobs. In fact one in four consider it, according to the Wellbeing of Women survey in 2016.

That’s not good for them and not good for their employer.

What this means for line managers

Many line managers tell us that they don’t feel confident talking about menopause. They don’t know enough about it or how they can help. Unlike maternity where it’s usually clear: a woman gets pregnant, has antenatal appointments, hands in her MAT B1, goes on maternity, has a baby and returns to work.

It may be more complicated for menopause, every woman’s experience is different. This means that managers need training to understand the range of possibilities and have guidance on the support that their organisation can provide to help.

It’s usually simple, low-cost support, like a desk fan or time off to visit their GP, that helps. Or even just the opportunity to talk about it.

Line managers don’t need to be menopause experts

A line manager recently told us that he felt uncomfortable talking about menopause because he didn’t know enough about HRT. When we explained that he probably didn’t know enough about an epidural but could do a maternity meeting, he felt happier knowing that his role was to support his team member, following his organisation’s policies.

How a woman manages her menopause symptoms is between her and her GP or menopause specialist, unless it’s affecting her work or she wants to talk about it.

Line managers don’t need to be medical experts, nor should they be. A good level of knowledge, understanding how they can support and how to have a good, supportive conversation makes a big difference.

What this means for organisations

What employers can do are what you’d expect of any employer who wants to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce. This starts with creating the environment to talk about menopause openly and without embarrassment. It is a natural phase in every woman’s life that needs to be normalised.

Our experience proves that it is possible to bring this hidden subject out into the open relatively easily with the right approach. Many organisations already are, both public and private sector – large and small. Leading the way like Severn Trent, Network Rail, Department of Education, University of Leicester and Leicestershire County Council. They’re following best practice, seeing the benefits and how quickly a once taboo subject can be normalised.

The Government Equalities Report on Menopause highlights the need for employers to put in place training, processes and information so all colleagues have a clear understanding of menopause. Whether it’s a policy or guidance document – it’s best if it’s written down and well publicised.

The report recommends introducing a range of reasonable adjustments. These are usually straightforward and simple to implement, such as a desktop fan or extra uniform, or even flexible working.

Our experience is that many organisations already have more in place than they might think. Sometimes it’s a few tweaks, and linking them together to demonstrate how they work for menopausal women.

The FOM 2016 guidelines Guidance on menopause and the workplace also recommend workplace training, raising awareness of menopause at work and introducing an array of workable solutions.

They also advocate fostering an environment in which women feel comfortable and confident talking to their managers, where managers follow clear and coherent guidelines and direct women to occupational health, if necessary.

Reducing employee relations issues

Short-term investment can prevent long-term issues. Two menopause-related tribunals have already been found in favour of the employee. It’s highly likely there are more to come. Menopause is covered under the Equality Act 2010, and can be on the grounds of sex, age or disability discrimination.

Employers never want issues to get this far, and taking steps to provide support to women can help protect them from legal entanglements.

Financial benefits to organisations

We’ve worked with, supported and talked to over 100 organisations in the last year. The outcomes have been clear benefits to employees and the employer.

Considering the relatively small investment in activity, the financial payback would be quick considering the following:

The cost of recruitment to replace women who leave the business, according to Oxford Economics, is around £30k, including direct recruitment costs and bringing a new member of the team up to speed.

Cost of absence. According to the Office of National Statistics, the groups who experienced the highest rates of sickness absence included older women and those working in large organisations.

Cost of employee relations issues or tribunals. The average cost of defending a tribunal case is £8,500 which doesn’t include the cost of any awards or the claimant’s legal fees, if won. On top of this is the distraction in the business and reputational risks.

Menopause and work: support is good for employers

These are clear, compelling reasons for supporting menopausal women in the workplace. It supports an inclusive culture and is good for colleagues. It’s a win-win for all.

We’re tracking the results with universities and organisations but anecdotal feedback already tells us that this is an investment that will return in the short and longer term.

Many women continue working through their menopause and for many years beyond. We believe supporting them through the menopause transition should be considered best practice by all employers. Colleagues will thank you for it too, so it’s good for retention, motivation and loyalty.

And it will help with recruitment. Some employers tell us, they consider it good for their employment brand and part of future-proofing their businesses.

We’re running UK-wide Menopause in the Workplace events for employers. Check out the details here.