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It’s time to talk about menopause in the workplace

Written by: Jo Brewis, Professor of People and Organisations at The Open University Business School

Menopause, when a woman’s periods stop for good, and they can no longer become pregnant, is a normal stage in most women’s reproductive lives. Typically beginning in a woman’s 40s, the average age for women in the UK to reach menopause is 51. However, one in a hundred women experience menopause before 40. Some will also go through sudden onset menopause because of surgery such as a hysterectomy which includes the removal of the ovaries, or medication like Tamoxifen, used to treat breast cancer. The experience and symptoms are different for everyone, ranging from unpredictable periods, poor sleep and hot flushes to loss of concentration and difficulties with recall. Around 25% of women experience severe and debilitating symptoms that significantly impact their ability to do everyday tasks and their overall quality of life. It is also important to point out that not everyone who experiences menopause identifies as a woman. Some trans men and gender non-conforming people will also transition through this reproductive life stage. I only use ‘woman’, ‘women’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ here as placeholders.

A workplace taboo

So why is talking about this inevitable, universal, and usually natural transition in every woman’s life still taboo in our workplaces? Even worse, why did a 2019 survey find that 370 000 women going through menopause had either left their jobs or considered leaving their jobs because of menopause symptoms?

In 2017, I was lead author on the UK Government Equalities Office (GEO) commissioned report ‘The impact of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK’. We found that, despite being an experience that 50% of the world’s population share, women still feel afraid or embarrassed to talk about menopause at work. My co-authors and I even reflected on how our experiences of writing the report mirrored many of the findings in the research we reviewed, especially around menopause as a taboo and gendered ageism in western organisations.

Employers have a moral responsibility to recognise that menopause happens and that it can be challenging for those who experience it. Thanks to the Equality Act and the first successful employment tribunal to prove unfair dismissal due to menopause-related under-performance, they also have a legal obligation to ensure they don’t discriminate against women going through this transition. If that’s not enough of an incentive, doing the right thing also helps organisations’ bottom lines. It costs an average of £30,000 in recruitment and training to replace a woman who has to leave work because of her symptoms, not to mention the valuable experience they take with them. And women of menopausal age are also among the fastest-growing workforce groups in the UK and elsewhere.

Improving employers’ attitudes to menopause

During the past few years, I’ve been working with innovative professional services consultancy, Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, to help public, private and third sector organisations develop best practice around menopause through workplace awareness events, training for line managers, HR and Occupational Health professionals, and communication and engagement toolkits. I regularly present at Henpicked events and always share the latest findings from my research with the team there.

Their work has reached millions of employees, not only in the UK but as far afield as the US and the Netherlands, and diverse employers from the NHS to high street retailer Next and HSBC UK.

This work has demonstrated how inexpensive and straightforward support mechanisms can make a huge difference. Allowing women to wear uniforms made of natural fibres or to work in an office with natural light, providing USB fans or supplies of cold drinking water and sanitary protection all helps. Specialist occupational health support can be more expensive, but women will probably only need it for a short time. Every UK worker already has the right to request flexible working after six months with the same employer, which can help women cope during menopause transition. This flexibility will be especially relevant after the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve helped the Universities of Leicester and Salford develop their first-ever menopause policies with these things in mind.

[The policy] has encouraged managers and colleagues to openly embrace how changes to working schedules and environments can be altered so to assist women with symptoms, enabling them to continue to be productive in the workplace.

Jeanette Seale, Finance Officer, University of Salford

I am also now a member of the expert panel which evaluates organisations’ applications for Menopause Friendly Accreditation. During our recent first meeting, it was inspiring to see how applicants are supporting their menopausal staff.

Changing the conversation

Through my work, I’ve spoken at events for employees from diverse organisations, from global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

I think people are a little bit scared to discuss the menopause, particularly men, however the tide is turning, as a result of work by people like Jo, and also with many female celebrities starting to become more vocal publicly. Only by normalising the conversation will that fear start to abate.

My employer now has quite a comprehensive webpage with information around the menopause. The support I was initially worried about did exist, but now it is more clearly signposted.

Nicki Metcalfe, Finance Director for Global Categories, GlaxoSmithKline

RSPB now has a dedicated menopause support section on its intranet, a digital menopause support group and has advertised its first virtual menopause event to its more than 2,000 staff.

Pushing the policy agenda

Engaging directly with employers and employees is critical to changing workplace attitudes to menopause and improving support for mid-life women in individual organisations. But it’s also essential to work with those organisations that shape attitudes across entire sectors. It has been so rewarding to help Business in the Community, the London-based responsible business network, enhance understanding among its more than 350 member organisations by co-authoring its Menopause in the Workplace toolkit.

Our academic team has also collaborated extensively with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to evaluate UK workplaces’ menopause awareness. Surveying thousands of employees up and down the country and further afield, we found that 10% of organisations have menopause policies in place. This sounds like a small number, but it is an indication that we are moving in the right direction. When we started researching menopause at work in early 2016, there were very few, if any, with this kind of provision in place. We’ve used the insights from the survey to support union members in raising menopause awareness with their employers, building support networks, and implementing beneficial policy changes.

A demographically pressing issue

Let’s be clear. I don’t think mid-life women workers should receive special treatment unless risk assessments find they need it. Nor do I ignore the fact that men have mid-life experiences which can be equally challenging. But what is clear to me is that we must continue to normalise women’s menopause experiences, so they feel comfortable speaking about it at work, without fear of judgement. It is also critical that we make employers understand that this issue will only become more pronounced as the working population ages.