“I can be having these symptoms but unless I say anything no-one realises. Women should feel able to talk openly about it and this includes the workplace.”
With the female employment rate continuing to rise, particularly for women age 50+, and the retirement age increasing to 66 by 2020, the impacts of the menopause for women at work cannot be ignored.
World Menopause Day shines a light on one of the biggest life stages for women. It’s on par with puberty and pregnancy, yet it is still a taboo subject for discussion, especially in the workplace. This could be partly linked with a persistent stigma around aging, with employees over 50 being classed as “older workers” – which is a problematic label in itself.
Many women are struggling in silence at work, hiding their symptoms while their quality of life suffers. The knock on effect is a loss of confidence and anxiety, with some women feeling no choice but to cease working altogether.
The symptoms can come and go, but on average the peri-menopause lasts four years. These symptoms can be physically and mentally debilitating and are often unpredictable. I spoke to a range of women about how the menopause has affected them at work, and it became clear very quickly that there is a lack of understanding and knowledge in the workplace of how the menopause impacts employees, and a lack of policy and workplace adjustments which women need to manage it. As one woman explained, “I don’t think there’s enough support, specialists, research, knowledge or understanding out there that women can access when they need it – that needs to change”.
Part of the problem is that it can present itself in so many ways; every woman experiences the menopause differently:
“Going to work has been really hard on some days. It has had a massive negative impact on my work due to being physically uncomfortable from bad headaches and hot flushes. This is difficult to manage working in an open plan office”.
“For me it’s more about the onset of anxiety around things I used to take in my stride and a feeling that I’ve lost confidence in myself and my abilities. Combine that with feeling tired a lot of the time, dizziness, indigestion, heart palpitations, inability to concentrate – the last thing you want when these symptoms hit is to do a presentation or participate in an important meeting.”
In a 2017 survey, Wales TUC Cymru found that 88 per cent of women workers who had experienced the menopause felt it had an effect on their working life. The survey also showed that a very small number of workplaces have the policies in place to support women who experience difficulties during the menopause.
So how can employers best support their staff when menopause symptoms are affecting them at work? Wales TUC is leading the way with the “Menopause in the Workplace” trade union toolkit launched last year.
At Chwarae Teg we work with businesses to help them improve performance through the effective recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. Raising awareness of menopause with the employers we work with can be significant – for example, a woman suffering menopausal symptoms may not be performing well but the employer may not realise the cause of her poor performance.
A key area of our work is helping businesses overcome barriers to flexible working, which can support and empower women to manage their menopause symptoms alongside their work. Senior Business Partner, Gemma Littlejohns, explains:
“We recommend employers speak to their employees individually to find out what reasonable adjustments could be made, much the same as any other work limiting health condition or disability. We help them to create a culture of understanding, acceptance and support in their workplace. Flexible working, such as late starts can be hugely beneficial when it comes to scheduling doctors’ appointments, or dealing with issues like exhaustion or sleep deprivation. The option to work from home can also be helpful.”
It’s also important to remember that there may be people in the workplace who have wives, partners or family members going through the menopause and not knowing how to help – so creating the right culture at work which normalises menopause like any other health condition can be beneficial on many levels.
The message to employers from the women I spoke to is clear: ensure you have the knowledge and understanding of the challenges of menopause to enable you to support women in your organisation as individuals. It’s vital to deal with menopause in the same way as any other health condition affecting someone at work, through open dialogue with the employee and offering the relevant adjustments required.
If you would like to discuss how you can support your employees through our Agile Nation2 Business Programme, contact us at email@example.com or 0300 365 0445. The programme is funded by the European Social Fund through the Welsh Government – www.agilenation2.org.uk