How Menopause Friendly is Your Workplace?

by | Oct 10, 2023 | Health and Wellbeing, News

Menopause. Until recently, it’s a word that so many of us have been afraid to mention, especially at work.

But suddenly, everyone is talking about menopause and perimenopause. High profile women from media, politics, business, and sport are all breaking down the taboo and talking menopause. In the UK, celebrities such as Davina McCall, Lorraine Kelly and Lisa Snowdon have spoken out about their experiences of the menopause, and opened the topic of conversation for thousands of women. Figures show that in the UK there are approximately 13 million people experiencing menopause – that’s one third of the female population! And 80% of them are now working through menopause and beyond. In fact, the average woman is now found to work for 16 years after transitioning through menopause. And this menopause transition takes place over days, weeks, months, and years, all while working. Unlike pregnancy or maternity, the menopause is not well understood or provided for in workplace cultures, policies, or training, and until recently the importance of understanding the menopause in the context of the workplace had been overlooked.

So, what is Menopause?

During mid-life, a woman’s oestrogen levels start to decline, and eventually she will stop having periods. Symptoms of declining oestrogen can last for up to 15 years, so the menopause is more of a ‘transition’ than a one-off event. The years leading up to menopause are known as perimenopause and this stage comes with a number of symptoms. Some women may experience all these symptoms, others none at all. The majority sit somewhere in the middle, with the NHS reporting that ‘about 8 out of ten women will have symptoms for some time before or after their periods stop’. These symptoms can have a significant impact on daily life for many women. Symptoms can be physical, psychological, or cognitive and can include (but are not limited to):

  • Hot flushes – short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck, or chest
  • Night sweats – hot flushes that occur at night
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular or heavy periods
  • Problems with memory and concentration / ‘brain fog’
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes such as low mood or anxiety
  • Palpitations
  • Joint stiffness, aches, and pains
  • Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other

As oestrogen receptors are present throughout the whole body, when this hormone starts to decline or become erratic, a woman may also experience problems with the reproductive tract, heart and blood vessels, bones, skin, hair, nails, pelvic muscles or brain. The menopause can also increase the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular problems. The Alzheimer’s Society also reports that “researchers think oestrogen may cause the body to make more antioxidants, protecting brain cells from damage. This could explain why the sudden drop in women’s oestrogen levels following menopause seems to make them more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s”. Clearly, there’s more to menopause than just feeling a bit hot while waiting for periods come to an end. Fortunately, through increased publicity, women are becoming more aware of the choices they have to help them through the menopause transition. Celebrities such as Davina McCall have worked with menopause experts such as Dr Louise Newson to provide clear, evidence-based information to women about Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and its alternatives. Almost daily, articles and information about menopause are being discussed and provided on news websites such as the BBC and factual TV shows such as This Morning. However, support for menopausal women in the workplace still lags behind mainstream media. The TUC found that ‘9 out of 10 menopausal women say symptoms have had a negative effect on their work and they wouldn’t tell their employer the real reason they were taking a sick day, instead stating anxiety or stress’. Dorothy Byrne (previous editor in large at Channel 4 and Head of News and Current Affairs) gave a Mactaggart lecture at Edinburgh Television festival and summed it up for many women when she stated that “even getting your boss to understand there is such a thing as the menopause can be a problem”.

How do perimenopause and menopause affect the workplace?

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The Government Report on Menopause found that menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace and according to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, around 80% of menopausal age women are in work. Consequently, at any time, a significant proportion of the workforce will be experiencing menopause symptoms. Many employers are still unaware of these symptoms which affect their workforce on a daily basis, which is why it’s more important than ever to tackle this previously taboo topic and raise awareness to create more inclusive and supportive environments. CIPD research led by YouGov found that:

  • 65% of menopausal women said they were less able to concentrate at work
  • 52% said they felt less patient with clients and colleagues
  • 30% had taken sick leave because of their symptoms but only a quarter felt able to tell their manager the real reason for their absence

Louise Newsome’s research also found than one in eight female employees had resigned from their work due to menopausal symptoms, and 21% had not applied for a promotion because they felt that their symptoms held them back. Additionally, the workplace itself can exacerbate menopause symptoms in a multitude of ways. Here are just a few:

  • Inadequate ventilation, high temperatures and humidity can increase hot flushes
  • Stress related to workload, meetings and job role can all impact anxiety and low mood
  • The physical demands of the job – such as using machinery – can worsen aching joints and headaches, and make heavy periods harder to manage

Many women feel that they can’t raise these issues or talk about their symptoms as employers might think they can no longer do their job. They fear being stereotyped or worry that they will be mocked, or made to look foolish. The TUC found that women can feel embarrassed to raise the topic of menopause, and many feel like they won’t be taken seriously. Research into the impact of menopause on the workplace is ongoing, and the TUC reports that ‘a common theme is lack of awareness and empathy, and ignorance around menopause and its impact from line managers and colleagues in general’. Not receiving adequate support at work can have a negative effect on any individual in the workplace including:

  • Reduced engagement with work
  • Reduced job satisfaction
  • Reduced commitment to an organisation
  • Higher sickness absence
  • An increased desire to leave

In fact, according to HR Review, the UK is losing up to 14 million working days per year due to menopause. The lack of awareness around menopause in the workplace is now becoming a significant issue, prompting MP Carolyn Harris to put the Menopause (Support and Services) Bill before the House of Commons, seeking the provision of support for women experiencing menopause – including in the workplace.

What can my organisation do?

Women experiencing menopause symptoms are more likely to speak up when their managers or colleagues are empathetic, and say they value their support. An inclusive, supportive workplace culture overcomes barriers, and cares for the wellbeing of employees. Large organisations like Sainsburys and Boots are already leading the way with supporting menopause at work, but smaller workplaces and those without unions may be less knowledgeable or unsure how to support menopause at work, even if they want to. The following steps can help support both employers and employees, and are useful for anyone either transitioning through menopause or those supporting people at work during this time.

Respect the Law

Employers have a legal duty of care to support employees in the workplace. Under the Equality Act 2010, discrimination against menopause can fall under the three protected characteristics of age, sex, and disability discrimination. Additionally, the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee states that ‘The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) provides for safe working, which extends to the working conditions when experiencing menopausal symptoms’. Every organisation is different, but the law applies to us all.

Make Workplace Adjustments

Examples of reasonable adjustments to working conditions often include things like working from home or adapting your chair or office furniture. Most women have to keep working through their menopause, so small changes can often make a big difference. For those with menopausal symptoms, adjustments might include providing more comfortable uniforms, allowing more flexible working hours or giving more frequent bathroom breaks. Michelle Obama spent 8 years at the White House as first lady while transitioning through menopause. In an interview with obstetrician and gynaecologist Sharon Malone, she explained her husband’s response (former president Barack Obama) when he found out that a number of members of staff were going through menopause. He stated ‘well turn the air conditioner on!’ Obama recognised the importance of adjusting the workplace environment to help keep his team feeling comfortable and doing their jobs well. Not all modern workplaces have air conditioning, but you could provide your team with desk fans or similar to help combat hot flushes.

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Focus on Wellbeing

Guidance from the Faculty of Occupational Health suggests that regularly checking in with employee wellbeing can be helpful, and many workplaces now have Workplace Wellbeing schemes focusing on Mental Health. If you already provide staff with information about healthy eating, meditation, the benefits of exercise and sleep behaviours, then all of these can be used to help support menopause. Taking proactive steps to create a more open, supportive culture and modelling healthy behaviours is a good place to start.

Update Workplace Policies

Make sure that you have a clear, concise Menopause Policy which includes all the reasonable adjustments that can be made in the workplace, and signposts employees to help and support, both inside your organisation and through external bodies and charities. Implement a zero-tolerance policy for mockery, jokes, and disrespectful behaviour.

Improve Communication

How comfortable are you talking to your colleagues about menopause? Provide an open, supportive workplace culture to help overcome barriers. Why not put a menopause symptoms list in the staff room, where all employees can read it? You could hold training sessions or workshops for employees. Some companies provide health checks –  menopause awareness could be included in these. Menopause support is very much a part of Occupational Health so speak to your HR or wellbeing teams to see what they can do to help.

Menopause Training for the Workplace

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Numerous companies have reached out to us in the last 2 years, desperate for workplace menopause training to support their teams. Thus, our Menopause Awareness Training training was born. Designed and developed with menopause experts, it gives you a clear understanding of the importance of supporting menopause at work.

Our online training is 30 minutes long, accessible by anyone, anywhere, and provides all the information you need to support those affected by menopause as well as their colleagues, family, partners, and friends. The course explores the types and stages of menopause, looks at menopause in the LGBTQIA+ community, and explains the symptoms of menopause in more detail. Importantly, extensive details about supporting menopause at work are given and there’s lots of information about starting the conversation about menopause as well as acting with confidentiality. Easy to use, with well defined chapters, and real-life case studies, the course reinforces the message that everyone needs to talk about menopause and breaks down this last remaining workplace taboo.

Click here if you’d like to try our Menopause Awareness training course. We also design and develop bespoke digital learning, working with a number of leading organisations across the UK. So if you need more extensive training, tailored specifically to you and your team, then get in touch.