Making Menopause Matter
As we approach World Menopause Day 2018, it seems an appropriate time to explore menopause and how it can be addressed in the workplace.
Statistics show a steady rise in Wales of both life expectancy in women, and women working past the age of 55. Various factors are seen as contributing to the increase. These relate to improved health, financial necessity, and career fulfilment.
Menopause has always been a natural part of a woman’s life as she becomes older, traditionally associated with her retirement years, but is now very much part of a woman’s working life.
So what is Menopause?
Menopause is defined as the ceasing of menstruation triggered by a loss of hormones. The reduction of hormones is a natural part of the ageing process in women and typically affects those aged 45-55, but for some can occur much earlier or be medically induced for specific health reasons.
The journey of menopause can be typically categorised into 3 stages perimenopause, menopause, and post menopause, of which there are approximately 34 physical symptoms, and for some women often severe emotional challenges, which can impact on mental health.
For the majority of women, there will be a menopause journey at some point in their life, as menopause is not a life choice and does not discriminate. However, the one thing to remember is that everyone’s journey is different, ranging from short term low impact symptoms, to a long term, sometimes debilitating, struggle.
What can we do?
It’s not all doom and gloom!
Advice abounds from diet to exercise to supplements. Medical therapies are also available in the form of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) which replaces the natural hormones lost through the menopause. However, HRT is not an option for every woman due to health risks, or other underlying medical factors personal to the individual. In these cases many women seek alternative therapies which for some alleviate many of the symptoms, but very few totally eliminate them. In such situations women are faced with the task of adjusting to incorporate symptoms of their menopause journey into their normal lifestyle. For some women this is attainable, but others may need extra support.
As a woman in my early fifties and embarking on the sixth year of my menopause journey, I realised some time ago that I was in this for the long haul. With the option of HRT not suitable for me, and alternative therapies making little difference, I had to aim to take control of the menopause before it took control of me.
Struggling to understand the vast changes to a body I no longer recognised, I decided the only way forward was to get educated.
I was fortunate in that I had the emotional support and financial means to make drastic changes to my work life balance, which in turn gave me more time for myself.
Following a very successful career continuously spanning 33 years, this was totally the right choice for me.
In doing so I have been able to carry out much research into menopause and its impact on my body and day to day tasks. Personally I felt I needed to learn as much as I could, and to tap into real experiences and accounts to ascertain the best options and advice for my own situation. This has included participating in forums and focus groups, all with the aim of increasing awareness, and adapting to minimise the impact of my menopausal symptoms on my every day activities
An Unexpected Turn
I soon discovered that menopause still has a stigma that was present when I was a young girl in the late sixties/seventies, when menopause was simply not talked about and referred to as ‘the change’. Many people remain uncomfortable addressing such issues.
Through my research I also quickly learned that for many women the challenge of dealing with their symptoms is made more difficult by the perceived lack of support available in the workplace.
It is generally felt that GP practices, pharmacists, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners have all contributed to address these taboos through increased knowledge and improved literature. Independent forums and focus groups are also a recent development to enable women to share experiences, but support in the workplace for many women remains sadly lacking, indicating that, professionally, menopause remains a prohibited topic.
I am fortunate that Tai Pawb’s working environment, culture and style allows me to manage difficult episodes experienced as a result of my menopausal symptoms and continue with a normal working day, but this is not the case for all.
The lack of understanding and support from some employers leaves women feeling isolated, anxious, and ‘invisible in the workplace’.
I spoke with a group of women in Wales all experiencing menopausal symptoms. In the group, five women, all senior managers of the same organisation, expressed they felt fully supported by their male director as they embarked on their menopause journeys. This director recognised that making sure the direct working environment operated flexibly to meet the requirements of these women ensured the continuity of their good work, retaining their skills and experience. Their organisation however, had no formal provision in its health and well-being practices to support the menopause.
I spoke with a different group of women and discovered a third of the group were women under the age of 50 who were experiencing menopausal symptoms. In the last 12 months, these women had all given up full time professional roles or reduced their hours as the combination of working pressures, home responsibilities, and dealing with their menopausal symptoms became too overwhelming when little or no support or sympathy in the workplace was provided, incrementally destroying their confidence as their journey progressed. Many of the group also shared that menopause had triggered depression which they hadn’t experienced before, and for the first time some were taking medication to aid their mental health.
Another woman in the group expressed being made to feel incapable or not committed to the organisation when she entered into very early menopause. This was evident in the attitudes of not just male colleagues but also younger female colleagues and managers.
It is unbelievable to think a loss of skilled workers could be easily avoided by simply acknowledging and supporting menopause in the organisation, when in reality 50% of the population will experience some menopausal symptoms during their working life.
With more women aged 45+ in work than ever before, it is time for organisations to open the conversation about menopause in the workplace, reduce the isolation and break down the taboo.
It remains a fact that many women will not feel comfortable about talking openly about menopausal symptoms due to their experience, culture, religion or even just their personality. Without organisations taking the lead to make supporting women ‘the norm’ in the workplace, some women will continue to suffer, and struggle to undertake their everyday work activities in a hellish pact of silence.
What can organisations do?
Places of work should recognise the evidence that menopausal symptoms can hugely interfere with a woman’s working life. Some women face a long working day following only 1 or 2 hours sleep a night. A typical day can also be disrupted by the physical and psychological effects of hot flushes which in themselves result in short term episodes of feeling uncomfortable, disorientated, and anxious. It’s not surprising that women often experience embarrassment and reduced confidence in the workplace, or feel they must absent themselves for a time.
Supporting women in the workplace in the first instance can be as simple as opening the lines of communication between employee and line manager. This is not to suggest an embarrassing conversation delving into the personal physical details of the woman’s menopause journey, but simply acknowledging under the health, safety and welfare umbrella, that a woman experiencing menopausal symptoms may need extra support during the working day.
Creating an open, but confidential, communication channel for women to discuss problems or concerns related to the menopause at work and ensuring that all employees have an understanding of what the menopause is and how it affects work, would make this support for women more customary, and thus is a first step of breaking down the taboo.
We have seen this approach work for pregnancy in the workplace, and it is beginning to work for mental health issues to the point that many organisations already have in place occupational practices to support all staff.
With regards to support for women experiencing the menopause the following could be considered:
- Training on the impact of menopausal symptoms so that all staff are aware of the challenges, and managers in particular are equipped to embed knowledge and skills in their role
- Flexible working including later start times to reduce issues caused by sleep deprivation
- Flexible sickness absence procedures to take into account menopause-related sickness absence;
- Access to cold water, restrooms, private space, and ventilation
- Being mindful as to whether symptoms are affecting performance and/or attendance at work;
- Working closely with occupational health specialists to identify any other reasonable adjustments that may make working life easier for menopausal women.
Can menopause be seen as a disability?
The Equality Act 2010 treats someone as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on the ability to carry out normal daily activities. As such it should not automatically be assumed that a woman going through the menopause will attract protection in the workplace provided by the Equality Act 2010.
That said, failure of employers to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace and provide proper support for a woman experiencing menopause may be treated as sex or age discrimination.
The first successful employment tribunal case concerning the menopause was in 2012. In the case of Merchant v BT plc – the employee alleged that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of her sex when her employer failed to deal with her menopause symptoms in the same way that it would have dealt with a medical condition with similar symptoms if they were experienced by a man.
So I will leave you with 2 questions.
- Are you a committed employer passionate about good employee health and well-being practices?
- If so, how can you positively contribute to the journey that many of your female employees are embarking on?
As we approach World Menopause Day, 18th October 2018 – lets look for us all to create a truly inclusive workplace and put menopause firmly on the agenda
In Tai Pawb, we will be embedding menopause considerations into our own policies and sharing learning from this process with our members. If you or your organisation has a story to share – please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.