Increasingly, it is becoming critical for employers to acknowledge menopause in the workplace and the potential effects it could have on their employees.
Our Government Equalities Office report on the effects menopause has on women’s employment and vice versa establishes that women aged 50 and over are by far the fastest-growing group of workers in the British economy.
Of course mid-life is also the stage at which women reach menopause, and stop menstruating for good. The symptoms which accompany transition to menopause can often continue post-menopause, sometimes for several years. And they can be debilitating – in fact for 25% of women, they are very debilitating indeed. Symptoms can include hot flushes and night sweats, heavy and erratic periods, difficulties with focus and memory, irritability and mood swings and depression.
It’s essential for employers to have the right information, training and processes in place to avoid the many costs of menopause transition that can occur otherwise, or if employers simply rely on employees initiating requests for reasonable workplace adjustments.
So what do employers need to know?
1. The experience of menopause varies considerably from woman to woman, and there is a very long list of possible symptoms.
Therefore, it’s important for workplaces to provide a variety of workable mechanisms so that mid-life female workers can request the right adjustments for them. Many of these – like providing desktop fans, cold drinking water and easy access sanitary protection – are cheap and easy to introduce.
Flexible working, which can also assist women in managing their symptoms – if they have had a bad night’s sleep, for example – is already something all employees in this country have the right to request. Other initiatives, like training for managers, HR and occupational health support, are well worth the investment.
2. Women in mid-life frequently report feeling as if their colleagues and managers treat them differently due to assumptions about the menopause.
There is also evidence of bullying, harassment and performance management because of a failure to understand menopause. Compared with attitudes, policies and processes around pregnancy and maternity at work, the difference becomes very obvious.
3. The social responsibility case for employers to provide appropriate support for women workers experiencing menopause in the workplace is undeniable.
For example, there is robust evidence that work offers much more than just a wage for older women – it is also a vital source of social support and self esteem. Equally, it is clear that many, many women do not feel able to speak up about any menopausal symptoms at work because they fear being judged, harassed or bullied.
What this means is that they manage their symptoms without any support, which of course has a vicious circle effect of its own.
4. There has already been a successful employment tribunal where the complainant had her claims of direct sex discrimination and unfair dismissal upheld.
Her manager had sacked her for poor performance even though she had a medical note certifying that her concentration was badly affected by menopause transition. Employment tribunals, of course, are costly to defend not only in economic terms but also reputational damage.
There is potential as well for claims to be brought based on age, sex and disability discrimination around the menopause.
5. There are other clear business reasons for making provision for women in menopause transition in the workplace.
The average cost of replacing an employee – say one who leaves because her symptoms make it too difficult to continue in her job – is £30,000. This includes the cost of lost output as well as the cost of recruiting and selecting someone else.
Less tangible costs include the loss of the departing worker’s expertise and experience.
Introducing menopause in the workplace policies and other best practice is straightforward and something all responsible companies should be considering.
Authors: Professor Jo Brewis, Dr Andrea Davies and Dr Vanessa Beck
Professor Jo Brewis and colleague Dr Andrea Davies work in the University of Leicester’s Business School and Dr Vanessa Beck works at the University of Bristol. Together with colleague Jesse Matheson they published the Government Equalities Report ‘The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK’. They’ve now put their research into practice, creating the UK’s first menopause-friendly university, supported by Henpicked’s Menopause in the Workplace team.