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3rd July 2019

Having a successful career takes hard work, self-belief, determination, time and often sacrifices. Added to this, if you are a working woman you may have the stress of working through the life stages of periods, pregnancy and the dreaded menopause.

There are an increasing number of women working well into their 60’s, some needing to in order to supplement a pension and others simply love what they do and are very successful so why not? Often women can be in the peak of their career when Mother Nature decides to throw them a curve ball and at an average age of 51 symptoms of the menopause start. In fact, it’s estimated that there are around 4.3 million employed women in the UK aged 45-60. What’s certain is that all will, at varying stages and ages, become menopausal and often suffer in silence or not feel they can reach out to employers for help and support during this very difficult and often embarrassing time.

Menopause in the workplace is still largely unspoken about and worst of all can be very debilitating for those going through it. Some women are fortunate enough to sail through symptom-free, but in the majority of cases they will suffer some, or all, of the effects of hot flushes, low mood swings, low confidence and self-esteem, lack of sleep, poor concentration, tiredness and forgetfulness. Often these symptoms are not clearly visible or recognisable, but they can seriously affect the ability to carry on as normal. Due to the associated stigma and a lack of perceived understanding most women will suffer in silence; not feeling comfortable or able to speak to their employer about their symptoms and how it is affecting their work. What’s worse, is that the lack of understanding and compassion at work may lead to a woman’s ability to do their job being called into question or even disciplinary measures taken against them. For some, the symptoms can be so severe they will simply leave their job rather than discuss it or raise their head above the parapet.

Sadly, some women can become ridiculed, shamed and feel side-lined by colleagues and managers when visible symptoms occur such as hot flushes – all of which can lead to a downward spiral of increased days taken on sick leave, lower confidence and productivity.

It seems strange that this area has been overlooked for this long whilst the opposite can be said for working women during pregnancy and when returning to work after a period of maternity leave. Responsibility for working mums is well documented in law and often seen as a benefit that businesses shout about, demonstrating they are a caring and supportive employer. The menopause, however, is currently in many cases brushed under the carpet enshrouded in ignorance or simply taboo.

Being a Responsible Employer

Safeguarding staff and ultimately the business are key as a responsible employer. No one wants to ultimately find themselves in a tribunal situation where an employee makes a claim against an employer on the grounds of unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, disability discrimination or age discrimination about issues relating to them because they are going through the menopause. However, a number of cases have already been brought and won by employees under the Equality Act 2010.

The cost of having to defend a tribunal is not only monetary but it’s stressful for all concerned, it takes a great deal of time to prepare for and can severely damage a business’s reputation both internally with existing employees and externally to the outside world. It can be avoided if support and clear policies are put in place.

Women going through menopause should be treated by any good employer in the same way as they would treat anyone whose work is affected by a change to their health and well being.

There are some simple steps businesses can put in place to break the taboo and address and improve the support female employees have in the workplace:

1. Raise awareness for all staff on the menopause, symptoms and effects;

2. Have information on the menopause readily available for all employees to access.

3. Encourage an open and honest forum for discussion for all staff.

4. As part of the training for line managers and senior management on their responsibility for staff wellbeing include education on the menopause.

5. Ensure line managers and senior management have help and advice on how to have a conversation with a member of staff who needs to discuss a menopausal issue.

6. Provide details of who to talk to for information or advice and details of occupational health professionals where necessary.

7. Consider whether it may be possible to offer flexible working to help during times of lack of sleep and when symptoms are particularly bad or to help during appointments.

8. Look at physical solutions eg desk fans, desk nearer a window, review uniforms.

9. Ensure support is tailored and bear in mind the menopause may last several years in some women.

What next?

Looking beyond the UK, some Far Eastern countries have employers who go one step further to recognise the importance of working women in their business. Some allow women duvet days or paid leave for up to 2 days per month if they suffer from severe period pain and cramps when supported with a doctor’s certificate. This condition isn’t something that only women in the Far East suffer from however, we are yet to see this level of support in western countries. It’s reported that 1 in 10 women have cramps that are so bad during their period that it prevents them from carrying out normal day to day activities for up to 3 days per month.

Whilst we may seem a little way off the Far Eastern example, now is an ideal time for businesses to review internal policies, break the taboo and think differently how experienced, valuable, more mature women are supported in the workplace during the menopause. After all, By 2024 more than 1 in 4 (18m people) will be over the age of 60.

If employers can provide support and recognition to this real issue as part of a legal duty of care, the benefit will be noticeable with increased loyalty, a stronger working relationship, lower sickness absence, lower staff turnover and of course fewer lengthy and costly tribunal cases.