"If performance were affected by symptoms that could be attributed to a different medical condition, there would be far more acceptance and allowances" (Baroness Ros Altmann, A new vision for older workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit, 2015)
British companies are becoming more open about the health and wellbeing of employees. Many organisations, including the IoD, promote the ethical and economic arguments for challenging taboos surrounding mental health and other debilitating conditions. Yet the transition through the menopause tends not to feature in the national conversation over working conditions. This is unfortunate and makes no business sense. 80% of women aged 45-55 are in work, and all will transition through the menopause. Research explored in this factsheet highlights the feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and frustration which employees experience in workplaces which offer no structured support during the menopause transition.
With the UK workforce ageing, open dialogue about how employers can support their employees transitioning through the menopause is an opportunity to deepen trust and retain valuable talent.
Employers should also be aware that failure to consider employee wellbeing issues related to the menopause can land a company on the wrong side of an industrial tribunal decision. In 2012, BT was found to have discriminated against an employee on the basis of age and gender after the employee was dismissed over performance issues which a tribunal accepted were caused by menopausal symptoms. In 2018, the Scottish Court and Tribunal Service (SCTS) was found to have discriminated against an employee after a gross misconduct dismissal was ruled to have ignored the employee’s disability (the menopause). The SCTS case is a rare example of a tribunal defining the menopause as a disability, but does demonstrate that an employer taking action against a menopausal employee risks a discrimination case based on age, gender, or disability.
This factsheet notes recommendations from Business In the Community and Unison for actions which help make the menopause more manageable at work. These recommendations do not ask much more from employers than is already required by legislation on anti-discrimination and workplace health and safety. Perhaps the most important contribution an employer can make is showing genuine awareness and concern for their employee.
The cost of not talking about the menopause in the workplace
In 2017, the Government Equalities Office estimated that the disruption of women's working lives by the menopause imposed a direct cost of £7.3 million on the UK economy. This figure only concerns the cost of absence caused by severe menopausal symptoms. It is reasonable to suggest that the overall cost is higher as the menopause causes attendance and performance issues at work.
The treatment of the menopause as a personal and private matter imposes a particular cost – the isolation of employees who feel they cannot disclose or discuss their situation with their employer.
A 2018 survey for the BBC suggested that 70 percent of working women transitioning through the menopause did not inform their employer of their condition.
The BBC survey also reported that 43 percent of respondents stated that the menopause had significantly affected their mood and mental health - leading to 41 percent admitting that their performance at work had suffered.
The impact of the menopause at work was also the subject of research by the University of Nottingham and The British Occupational Health Research Foundation.
The study found:
- 50 per cent of survey respondents taking time off work to deal with menopausal symptoms did not tell their line-manager the real reason.
- Nearly 20 per cent of respondents surveyed said that the menopause had a negative impact on their manager’s perceptions of their competence at work.
If an employee leaves a company because of menopausal symptoms, that company is exposed to the £30,000 cost of replacing an experienced member of staff (Oxford Economics). It's also worth bearing in mind that an employee aged 45-55 may well occupy a very senior position or possess essential expertise, meaning the replacement cost could be much higher.
What employers can do
The menopause affects each woman differently - some experience mild symptoms whilst about 25 percent of cases are marked by severe symptoms. As such, employers should treat the menopause transition on a case by case basis. A flexible approach is key
Carol Atkinson, Professor of Human Resource Management at Manchester Met’s Centre for Decent Work and Productivity, has researched support for menopause transition in a number of workplaces. She says "Many women need workplace support during menopause transition. This is often quite minor in nature but makes a big different to performance, motivation and a sense of feeling valued. It is also vital to create an open environment where discussion of menopause is possible and line manager training is critical to this."
Business In the Community (BITC) publishes an informative and useful toolkit for employers to be more engaged with employees transitioning through the menopause:
Women, Menopause and the Workplace
The main recommendations are:
- Educate line managers about how the menopause symptoms can affect a person's work.
- Record absence related to the menopause as a long-term health issue rather than as a series of absences which will eventually trigger your company's sickness absence policy. This provides some peace of mind for the employee and will make communications easier.
- Accommodate requests for flexible working.
- Encourage agile working - empower the employee to work in a way which allows them to best manage their symptoms.
BITC also notes that minor changes to the working environment may be required:
Allow the employee control over how warm or cool the temperature is. Ventilation is also important.
Ensure availability of cold drinking water.
Ensure access to clean toilet facilities.
Unison also has some suggestions on supporting employees experiencing the menopause:
The menopause and work
Several of these feature in the BITC list of recommendations. Some additional suggestions include:
- The menopause should be included in a company’s wider occupation health training – this will indicate the employer’s positive attitude on the subject, and help overcome the embarrassment and reticence felt by some female employees.
- Understand that some women may be reluctant to discuss the menopause with a line manager who is younger or male. Other contact options for women are the HR team or welfare officer, or an employee assistance programme.
- Working arrangements should be flexible enough to allow more breaks if required, and understanding of any need to leave work suddenly.
- There is evidence that workplace stress can make menopausal symptoms worse – and even cause premature menopause. Another reason to take seriously the issue of sustained, unmanaged stress.
Staff uniforms and workwear
For the sake of durability, uniforms and workwear often make use of hard-wearing man-made fibres – a person experiencing hot flushes or intense perspiration will suffer discomfort and embarrassment if their uniform works against them, not with them. Professor Carol Atkinson says: “Uniforms can be a really important issue for women in menopause transition. Often small adjustments to fabric or colour can make a big difference to comfort and practicality. Organisations should however be mindful that any adjustments do not mark out menopausal women as different to other staff.”
Faculty of Occupational Medicine: Guidance on menopause and the workplace
NASUWT: Managing the Menopause in the Workplace
The Henpicked website, a community for women aged over 40, is a good resource for both women experiencing the menopause and employers:
Henpicked Menopause Hub for individuals
Henpicked Guidance for Employers
Practical advice on the menopause for women: https://www.menopausematters.co.uk/
Social support https://www.menopausecafe.net/
Health and Wellbeing Services
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