supporting women during the menopause

Despite being a totally natural part of a woman’s ageing process, menopause remains taboo, and something that many people still feel uncomfortable talking about – especially in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for employers to think of menopause as an intensely personal issue and not want to appear to pry even if they believe that a colleague is being negatively affected by its symptoms.

But not speaking openly about menopause and its impact leaves many women feeling isolated at work, and even ashamed. While menopause is not an illness, it’s a health condition which requires support and understanding – and in some cases, medical treatment to alleviate symptoms.

Although the majority of women experience mild to moderate symptoms during perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause) and menopause itself, 25% report menopause as being debilitating. Regardless of the severity of symptoms, every woman needs and deserves her employer’s support regardless of how she’s being affected.

Why does menopause matter to your business?

According to the CIPD, there are around 4.4 million women over the age of 50 in work, and the majority of these will go through menopause during their working lives. The same report also suggests that one in four women who are approaching, or are in, menopause “say they don’t get the support they need from their manager”. It doesn’t need to be like this. An open culture where it’s perfectly normal to speak about menopause just as one would about any other health condition is an organisation which is confident about engaging its staff and mature in its approach to what can be an uncomfortable topic. Workplaces where there are supportive, engaged relationships of this kind tend to experience better attendance, performance and productivity – and improved staff retention – than their competitors.

Fast facts – menopause at work

  • Most women enter menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. The average age in the UK is 51 although about 10% of all women will start menopause before the age of 40 (whether due to illness, surgery, or a condition referred to as premature menopause or premature ovarian insufficiency). It is almost certain therefore that there are women in your business who are suffering in silence.
  • According to the charity, Wellbeing of Women, around 13 million women (one third of the UK’s female population) are currently perimenopausal or menopausal in the UK. Of these women, it’s estimated that 80% are in work.
  • The CIPD has found that approximately 30% of women have taken sick leave because of their symptoms. Wellbeing of Women reported in 2016 that one in four women have considered leaving their jobs because they’re don’t feel able to cope as a result of their symptoms.
  • The human costs of not supporting women experiencing menopause aside, organisations which avoid the issue are vulnerable to high recruitment, absence, and potentially, tribunal costs.

What are the symptoms of menopause?

Menopause occurs as a woman ages and her oestrogen levels decline to a level where she no longer can become pregnant and she stops menstruating.

Menopause does not appear overnight but begins with perimenopause, a stage where symptoms start to appear but the woman is not yet fully menopausal (this is known as the transition period). Perimenopause can start months, or even years, before a woman’s periods completely stop and she enters full menopause. In both perimenopause and menopause, symptoms can be strikingly disruptive to a woman’s daily routine – both at work and at home. Some common symptoms include:

  • Problems sleeping – both short-term and chronic
  • Hot flushes at any time, often without warning
  • Night sweats causing wakefulness and difficulty getting back to sleep
  • Low mood or sadness
  • Anxiety
  • A lack of confidence in one’s usual abilities
  • Sudden and unpredictable mood swings
  • Problems concentrating and focusing on simple tasks
  • Feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day stressors
  • Memory problems (‘brain fog’)
  • Changes to body shape, weight, and energy levels.

How employers can help to smooth the transition for everyone

We all have a duty to ensure that we are doing all that we can to meet the needs of women who are affected – to whatever degree. In some tribunal cases, menopause has been deemed to be covered under the Equality Act 2010, on the grounds of sex, age or disability discrimination. Here are some workplace adjustments that may be helpful:

  • While menopause is not an illness, it’s important that women who are struggling have the same courtesies extended to them as would a colleague who is coping with any other kind of health condition. Whether it’s time off for medical appointments or counselling sessions, or other reasonable adjustments such as changes to a rota when symptoms are particularly severe, employers should have clear guidance which is promoted across the business. We also suggest that employers ensure that it is clear in their employee handbook that time off for a woman dealing with menopause to see their GP or a specialist is acceptable. This may include male colleagues who are supporting partners – it can be helpful for both to attend appointments when needed.
  • Employers can offer adjustments such as flexible working which can be an enormous help if a woman is suffering from chronic sleep problems, a not uncommon symptom of menopause. 
  • Provision of desk fans can also be useful for women who experience hot flushes, which can come on without warning. Signs that a hot flush may be occurring is sudden redness of the face, upper torso, and/or neck, profuse sweating of the upper body, tingling in the fingers, and a racing heartbeat. Allowing women to leave meetings if they need to is good practice. For example, a walk outside in the fresh air can help to reduce the intensity of a hot flush and  reduce associated distress.
  • Provision of a spare uniform should one become unwearable due to a hot flush during a shift.
  • Avoid the tendency to assume that any symptoms you see means that the employee has a mental health problem. The menopause can cause some women to feel very low and anxious, tearful, and ‘not themselves’ but this is natural and not always a sign that something deeper is the issue. Some women find that their moods can change quite abruptly, or they may have difficulties managing frustration. retailTRUST is here to support women and their partners who are struggling with the emotional impact of menopause.
  • Performance can be negatively impacted by some symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog or other physical and cognitive issues. Treat menopause-related performance issues as you would any other type of health-related performance problem. Reasonable adjustments can support women through the worst of their menopause and encourage colleagues to feel free to speak openly about why they’re struggling and what they need from their manager to stay present and engaged.
  • Spreading the word about menopause can help normalise what is in fact a very normal part of life. Consider offering training for your HR team or line managers, and think about providing drop-in sessions with a menopause specialist who can offer advice and support to anyone affected (that includes men too!). If we don’t acknowledge the impact on menopause at work, we can lose great people which has both a financial and a human cost.