Today, the menopause is front and centre in public discourse, thanks in part to celebrity-led awareness campaigns. In the UK, TV presenter Davina McCall’s two menopause documentaries have reached audiences of millions, her aim being to empower women to speak up and seek help to alleviate their symptoms. However, talking about menopause at work remains a difficult prospect for many women, and some employers are unsure what their role is in helping colleagues experiencing detrimental symptoms. We take a UK-based look at how employers can provide useful support in the workplace. However, the general advice is universal.
How to provide menopause support at work
In order to remove stigma and normalise the conversation about menopause in the workplace, an employer’s first tool is spreading awareness. Starting with common symptoms of menopause and their effect on women at work will take the pressure off the individual who is struggling. Sharing information creates a supportive and informed culture around them.
Between the ages of 40 and 55, 80% of women will experience many physical and psychological symptoms of menopause. These include:
One in four suffers so severely, they will need significant support to maintain normal performance at work. The charity Women’s Health Concern states that the most common difficulties menopausal women report at work are low concentration levels, tiredness, poor memory, feeling low or depressed and reduced confidence.
An increasing number of organisations offer in-work menopause information and training services, including Equality Works Ltd, Laughology, and Positive Pause to name a handful. We spoke to Lauren Chiren, founder of Women of a Certain Stage, which offers various sessions to open up the conversation and help women at work. She says, ‘We need women to stay in work. UK government research found that women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the UK workforce. If we don’t look after them, we’re going to have a massive shortage of skills.’
Lauren came to her role following an early undiagnosed menopause, which caused her not only to think she had early onset dementia but also give up a successful role as a manager in financial services. This experience left her determined to help others navigate their menopause journey, particularly at work.
In the UK, unions and advisory bodies such as ACAS also offer training and information about managing the menopause at work, from both an employer and employee perspective.
All of these organisations lead workshops and information sessions at work, to encourage positive conversations around menopause. These often lead to training a named person to be a menopause advocate – or champion – at work, leaving an ongoing legacy of support.
Menopause information sessions should be led by experts or trained individuals. They should also involve all colleagues, so that those suffering feel seen and understood. The better we understand what our family, friends and colleagues are going through, the better all our lives and workplaces will be. Lauren says that after her group sessions, men often tell her that she’s saved their marriage.
Once awareness is widespread at work, women with menopause struggling at work feel more able to speak to a line manager or HR without fear of dismissal. The British Menopause Society found that 47% who needed a day off due to menopause said they would not admit the real reason to their employer or colleagues. A culture of openness and accurate information sharing has to be created.
Providing good information at work may be the catalyst for women to get the clinical help they need. If they’re encouraged to do this in the workplace, even indirectly, they are more likely to remain in their job, stay positive and continue to contribute. Feeling supported at work is a key factor in well-being of employees across the board, as Cigna’s Global Well-being surveys repeatedly show.
Practical menopause support at work
As well as talking, there are practical solutions for some problems that arise with menopause at work.
A Society for Endocrinology study found that work environments that made menopause symptoms worse include high temperatures, poor ventilation, humidity, impractical uniforms, infrequent breaks, noise and no access to a quiet space. Simple measures to alleviate such problems include desk fans, uniform adjustments, and freedom to have a break when needed.
Long hours, short and changing deadlines, high workloads and dealing with customers, patients and clients can also make symptoms worse. These require more substantial adjustments, but adapting could be the difference between keeping or losing female talent. Remedies could mean offering flexible working hours or short-term change of duties. A woman should feel able to speak to the relevant person at work to be able to facilitate change.
UK union Unison asserts that both line managers and HR staff should be trained to understand how menopause can affect work. They say that the impact of menopausal symptoms on women workers becomes an occupational health and an equality issue if adapting symptoms around inflexible work expectations is too difficult.
Reducing workload stress is also good practice. Lauren sees many younger women with perimenopausal symptoms in their 30s and early 40s in high-stress roles, who are dismissed by medics as they appear to be too young for menopause.
Creating connections to support women with menopause at work
Lauren says, ‘In eight years of doing this, I’ve found that what most people are missing is community.’ She creates WhatsApp groups for those on her courses, where people trade positive information; things that are working well. Similar support groups can be encouraged as part of an information drive in the workplace.
Likewise, communal experiences that help symptoms, such as group walks, movement sessions – yoga perhaps – and access to nutritious food will help women feel supported and connected at work. These not only help menopausal women but bring greater well-being to everyone.
Treatment of symptoms for women with menopause struggling at work
Offering healthcare information for menopause is also something workplaces can do. Arming people with the information they need to take to a doctor’s appointment or private healthcare provider check-up is helpful. Lauren says, ‘Going in with the word menopause on your lips, a list of symptoms and knowledge about what solutions are out there is a great start.’ A workplace menopause champion can provide this support. There is no single solution, however, so they shouldn’t bring any prejudice about treatment to the role.
How to set up a menopause policy at work
A menopause policy is a set of guidelines to ensure women are treated fairly. It’s advisable that every organisation has one.
The policy should include a statement which links back to an HR or well-being strategy. It should include definitions of menopause, a synopsis of symptoms, reasonable adjustments and support for colleagues, commitment to spreading awareness, and named people to approach for help.
Any policy must recognise that menopause is different for everyone and that it can affect younger women through a premature or medical menopause, as well as trans or non-binary colleagues.
While menopause isn’t yet a protected characteristic in UK law, discrimination in relation to sex, age and disability could all be used with relevance to the menopause if someone felt they were being unfairly treated due to their menopausal symptoms.
However, failing to deal with the impact of menopausal symptoms at work is more likely to lead to a drain of talent than a law suit. Both should be avoided by use of ongoing information and support sessions and guidance, outlined in the menopause policy.
Wider action to normalise menopause in the workplace
In the UK, the government has stepped into the conversation. The introduction of a menopause ambassador and a proposal to make menopause a protected characteristic signals that more attention is being given to this fact of life for over half the population. This should help employers recognise that action is needed.
Open conversations in the workplace and supportive environments will lead to better outcomes for colleagues struggling with menopause symptoms. With further research and workplaces that are willing to support and listen, things can only get better.