The subject of menopause always used to be something of a taboo – rarely spoken about in society, still less in the workplace. This, thankfully, is now changing. We are hearing more about menopause and the experiences of women in the mainstream media – Davina McCall, for example, recently did an excellent documentary for Channel 4 exploring the myths surrounding menopause.
There is also a lot more information and support available for women than before including podcasts and websites dedicated to the subject as well as local support groups. In the workplace, increasing numbers of employers are recognising the need to provide support and to take steps to address the challenges at work experienced by many menopausal women. There is still, however, a long way to go to normalise discussions about menopause in the work-place and a lot more that businesses can do to support employees who are going through the menopause.
What is the menopause and what are the symptoms?
For many people, their knowledge of the menopause will be informed by the experiences of friends and relatives who have gone through it. Unfortunately, because many women find it difficult to talk about their symptoms, it means that perceptions of what the menopause is and what it is really like to go through the menopause, are often very limited. Many will have a vague idea that it is about going through “the change”, happens to women in their 50’s and it involves a lot of hot flushes.
The menopause is a natural stage of life when a woman’s oestrogen levels decline, and she stops having periods. It is a gradual process or “transition”, which means the symptoms are experienced over a number of years. The average period is around 7 years, but many women experience menopausal symptoms much longer.
The menopause tends to occur between the ages of 45 and 55 but some women start having symptoms earlier or later than this. Around 1 in 100 women experience the menopause before 40 years of age and this is known as premature menopause.
Most women will experience menopausal symptoms, but each woman’s experience will vary. Some may have mild symptoms whereas others may have severe symptoms. However, experiencing any of the common symptoms of menopause can have an impact on everyday activities, including work.
Typical symptoms include; hot flushes, night sweats, irregular periods, muscle and joint stiffness, headaches, palpitations, hair loss, difficulty sleeping, low mood, anxiety and/or depression, memory loss, panic attacks, loss of confidence and reduced concentration.
Why do employers need to do anything?
All women will experience the menopause at some point in their lives and many will get symptoms that impact on their ability to carry our normal every-day activities, including work. Menopausal symptoms can affect an employee’s performance and attendance and if it isn’t recognised or understood by employers, it can lead to unfair and discriminatory practices. Given this and the fact that, according to the Office of National Statistics, menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, the question should be, not “why do employers need to do anything” but “why wouldn’t an employer want to do something”?
There are, undoubtedly, going to be many employees who simply do not want to talk about the fact they are going through the menopause with their employer. The symptoms can be very personal and can be embarrassing and distressing. Understandably, many women will not want to share these details with their employer, even if they are having an impact on their work.
There is no easy or quick solution to encourage employees to talk more openly about this issue. After all this is a subject that not only is deeply personal but has for years been confined to whispers or hushed conversations between women – or not spoken about at all. However, you can start to do things to create an environment where employees feel able to talk about the menopause openly and without embarrassment. These include:
- Providing training to managers so they know what the menopause is, what the symptoms are and how they can support female employees who are experiencing difficulties at work because of menopausal symptoms. The more supportive and knowledgeable managers are about menopausal symptoms, the less likely that employees will feel embarrassed about discussing with them how the menopause is affecting their health and their work.
- Implementing a Menopause at Work Policy to help foster awareness about menopause among staff, to encourage employees to feel confident to ask for support if they need it and to assure employees going through menopause that you are committed to providing a supportive working environment for them.
- Providing access to services such as employee assistance programmes or counselling or signposting to organisations and services that can provide help and support.
- Carrying out a risk assessment that includes an assessment of the specific needs of menopausal women. It is an employer’s legal duty to provide a safe and suitable working environment for its staff and this includes making suitable adjustments for employees who are experiencing menopausal symptoms. Often simple adjustments – such as providing a desk fan or a more comfortable uniform or time off to visit the GP – can help.
- Making reasonable adjustments for employees to help alleviate or remove any difficulties they are having at work due to their menopause symptoms.
Any adjustments made should be done in consultation with the employee and, if appropriate, occupational health or other health professional, to ensure the adjustment is suitable and meets the employee’s needs.
What adjustments are appropriate will vary depending on the employee’s particular symptoms but could include offering flexible working, allowing an employee to work from home when symptoms are at their most severe, providing easy access to rest rooms, adjusting sickness absence records/Bradford factor formula for menopause-related absence, allowing for more frequent breaks or temporarily adjusting the employee’s duties.
It is worth noting here that there have been cases in the employment tribunal where menopause symptoms have been accepted to be a disability. Therefore, not only is it good practice to consider making reasonable adjustments for an employee with menopausal symptoms but it is also advisable from a legal point of view.
- Managing performance issues positively and sensitively, ensuring that you have regular, informal meetings with the employee to discuss the areas where improvement is required and/or support is needed. Having informal discussions should help you to identify any underlying cause of the performance issues, to address any health issues that the employee may have and to consider whether any potential adjustments that can be made. Formal performance management processes should not be commenced before these issues have been explored.
A ‘win, win’ situation
By supporting employees going through the menopause, not only will you be improving the health and well being of your staff but it will also help your business as it will improve retention, motivation, loyalty and recruitment.
If you would like more information or advice on how you can best manage menopause in the workplace, please get in touch with us.