For most women in their forties and fifties, the menopause will at some point be an unpleasant fact of life. But just because it is “normal” doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t provide education, help and workplace health support for women coping with what can sometimes be significant and even debilitating symptoms.
Employee health and wellbeing – why it makes sense for employers to become “menopause-friendly”
“A hysterical show packed full of one-liners about night sweats, hot flushes and memory loss!” – such is the description of Menopause: The Musical.
Or how about Bank of England deputy governor Ben Broadbent’s much criticised attempt at levity in May when he described the UK’s sluggish economy as “menopausal”?
Clearly, the menopause, that period when women (normally in their 40s and 50s) stop having periods and their bodies adjust, is something that has the potential to be thought of as funny, a bit of a joke or something to snigger about.
Yet, while the menopause is a natural part of ageing and therefore should not in any sense be considered an “illness”, from a workplace perspective its impact on the health and wellbeing of female employees should perhaps be given greater consideration by employers.
This is because, as the government’s Equalities Office concluded last year, the menopause costs UK plc as much as £7.3m a year in absence-related costs. Moreover, women going through the menopause often say they feel unsupported by their employers.
A BBC survey earlier this year concluded that employers need to do more to “normalise” conversations about the menopause in the workplace, and that 70% of respondents did not feel able to tell their bosses they were experiencing symptoms.
Similarly, a study last year by the University of Leicester called for more menopause-friendly workplaces, as women often felt they were left to cope alone. Last year too, the Wales TUC published a report The Menopause – a workplace issue which found that 88% of the women workers polled who had experienced the menopause felt it had had an effect on working life, while six out of 10 had witnessed the issue being treated as a joke.
Only a very small number of workplace had policies in place to support women who experienced difficulties during the menopause, it highlighted, and in some cases health and safety issues in the workplace caused women’s symptoms to worsen.
What, then, can employers be doing?
Range of tools and support
There is a wide range of tools and advice out there that employers can turn to. TUC Wales in May, for example, published a guide The menopause: a workplace issue – a toolkit for trade unionists to help union reps press employers to make improvements in the workplace.
More widely, Business in the Community has a handy downloadable toolkit Women, Menopause and the workplace, which provides basic information about the symptoms of the menopause, advice for managers on how to encourage communication, and practical solutions.
The Faculty of Occupational Medicine also has Guidance on menopause and the workplace, which is intended to offer employers practical guidance on how to improve workplace environments for menopausal women.
Openness and transparency
But most of all, as Public Health England has shown most recently, it is about being aware and being prepared to be open about the health issues surrounding women’s reproduction, whether the workplace adjustment issues that need to come with infertility, pregnancy, return to work after birth or the menopause.
PHE concluded in June that 31% of women – all, of course, potentially valuable and productive employees and colleagues – experience severe reproductive health problems, yet fewer than half seek help.
As Dr Sue Mann, public health consultant in reproductive health at PHE, has argued, there is a “need for an open and supportive approach in the workplace and in the health system. We encourage women to seek support from their workplace, and for workplace management to be aware of how reproductive health symptoms can affect women’s daily life.”
Dr Lucy Wright, Optima Health Chief Medical Officer, agrees. “Far from being a laughing matter, for many women the menopause can be an uncomfortable, distressing and painful experience. But one of its challenges is it is often seen as something ‘private’ or ‘taboo’ or ‘difficult’ to discuss.
“Employers should consider putting in place proper training for managers about how to broach these sensitive topics in a constructive and supportive way. The best practice advice and guidance an Employee Assistance Programme can provide can be helpful in this context.
“Having – and clearly communicating – flexible and adaptable policies that support the needs of women going through the menopause is also valuable. It is about understanding the issues, including the likely symptoms women will be experiencing and the effect these may have on their ability to do certain duties or even just to be at work and productive,” she adds.