The Menopause: breaking the taboo
16th September 2021
Many good employers are starting to recognise that menopause is something that needs to be given greater consideration in the workplace, especially given that roughly half of the population will go through it at some point. Davina McCall’s Channel 4 documentary ‘Sex, Myths & the Menopause’ highlighted the lack of knowledge and understanding around the menopause and perimenopause, even with some medical professionals. So, it’s not surprising that many women are experiencing difficulties in the workplace, due to lack of understanding and recognition of the impact it can have.
This can range from physical symptoms, such as sleep deprivation, hot flushes, aches and pains, emotional changes including anxiety, depression, low mood, anger, and cognitive issues such as poor memory and difficulty concentrating. These can lead to a loss of confidence and self-esteem, as well as increased absence and an impact on performance.
A lack of knowledge and understanding of these issues and how to deal them in a sensitive and supportive way can have an incredibly negative impact on the employment relationship. A recent article in People Management reported that there has been a significant increase in tribunals involving the treatment of workers going through the menopause, with cases of discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Whilst menopause is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, it could still give rise to claims of age, sex and/or disability discrimination. That’s not to mention the retention issues and loss of talent: a 2019 survey conducted by BUPA and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that nearly 1 million women have left their job because of difficulties in the workplace due to menopausal symptoms.
In our experience of supporting organisations through complex employee relations issues such as grievances, disciplinaries, performance and cultural change, we have seen a range of different responses to the challenges faced by those with menopausal symptoms. We have encountered good managers, who are alive to the issues but fearful of getting it wrong, and poor managers who do not recognise and respect the impact of the menopause and who have viewed it as an excuse (as opposed to a reason) for increased sickness absence or dips in performance.
The million-dollar question is: how do we get better at dealing with this? Some organisations have taken the approach of developing a specific Menopause Policy. Whilst this may be a step in the right direction, in our view it will not in itself be sufficient, and may not even be necessary, provided there is good awareness training and practical guidance to promote better understanding within the organisation. This, alongside greater inclusivity and a recognition within organisational policies that poor treatment of someone with menopause symptoms could lead to claims of sex, age and/or disability discrimination, and identifying clear sources of support for those suffering with menopausal symptoms, is likely to be a more practical and effective way forward.
The main agenda must surely be to break the silence and tackle the stigma – we need to talk about it more. Menopause typically affects women between the ages of 45 – 55 but symptoms can start much earlier or continue beyond 55, so think about that in relation to the people you work with and all of a sudden it becomes very apparent how essential awareness and support is. These women (we include ourselves and many of our wonderful colleagues in this) form a significant and highly valuable part of the workforce, often at the peak of their careers, with a huge amount to offer in terms of knowledge and experience. Many suffer in silence, some have increased sickness absence, and some ultimately choose to leave.
Managers need to feel equipped to support and respond in a sensitive and constructive way and women should not be fearful of disclosing the impact that it is having on them and should feel confident that they will be supported to get the help that they need.
This can only be done through good leadership and a proactive organisational approach to promote awareness, openness and acceptance. After all, menopause is a passing storm for most and damaging that employment relationship through lack of awareness would be an enormous loss.
Here are some practical steps that organisations can take:
- Create awareness in the organisation through communication, training and guidance for all – breaking the taboo!
- Encourage people to speak up and share their experiences. For example, creating a network or forum where people can talk about what has worked well, what has not worked for them and gathering learning from this so that others may benefit.
- Work with representatives from this demographic and Human Resources to create a practical guidance on the menopause, with sign posts to what support might be available (e.g. employee assistance programmes, counselling, other external resources such as GP’s and women’s health experts)
- Offer flexibility where you can – sometimes this is all that is needed. Identifying possible workplace changes and adjustments to help women through this period of time. Relatively minor changes could have a significant positive impact.
- Create a culture of understanding and empathy, for example looking at reasons for absence which might be related to menopause and offering support, rather than acting in a punitive manner.
Zoe Wood and Shelley Morgan, Associates, ibex gale