Menopause at work: women need better support from employers

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Years of pseudonyms and oblique references have long disguised the reality that menopause is a fact of life - as predictable and mundane as the menstrual periods that 50 per cent of the population experience, every month, for decades of their lives.

The symptoms – hot flashes, brain fog, debilitating sleep issues – are often tittered over and dismissed. But these are not trivial ailments. Bupa research in 2019 revealed almost a million women had left the workforce because of their menopause symptoms. The problem does not lie with these women, but with the structure of employment.

Women over the age of 50 are the fastest growing group in the workforce. There are currently around 4.5 million women aged 50–64 in employment. These are highly skilled, experienced roles models at the peak of their careers. The workforce is haemorrhaging these talented women, forced to reduce their hours or leave work entirely.

It is obvious that this is a problem, one with knock-on consequences on the gender pay gap and then the gender pension gap. For over a year, the cross-party Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, which I Chair, ran our Menopause and the Workplace inquiry. It was vital, we agreed, to consider menopause as first and foremost a health condition.

It is, furthermore, a health condition that affects half of all people over their lifetime. Despite this, the evidence we gathered showed considerable stigma in society and at work in terms of talking about menopause; particularly for groups who have typically not formed part of the conversation or research around menopause, such as LGBT+ people, young women experiencing premature menopause, and ethnic minority women.

Caroline Noakes MP: "Even when women do tell their colleagues, a significant number feel unsupported." Photograph: UK Parliament

Many women told us that the did not feel their GPs were well equipped to diagnose or treat menopause; some were misdiagnosed with depression, and others told to ‘live with’ their symptoms. Cost and supply of HRT is also a massive issue. We’ve made recommendations to government to increase the number of menopause specialist services and reduce HRT costs. We’ve also called on the Royal College of GPs to ensure GPs undertake menopause training as part of their professional development.

How does the menopause affect women at work?

But, as the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated all too clearly, health, work and the economy are closely interlinked. In September 2021, we ran a survey to understand just how the menopause affects women at work.

A significant number (69 per cent) of women surveyed about the menopause reported anxiety or depression as a symptom. Photograph: iStock

It had over 2,000 responses. 99 per cent of respondents said they had experienced at least one menopause symptom. Difficulty sleeping was the most reported (81 per cent), followed by problems with memory and/or concentration (75 per cent), and then hot flushes and night sweats (both 73 per cent). A significant number (69 per cent) reported anxiety or depression as a symptom. 92 per cent reported that these symptoms affected them at work, reporting they were less able to concentrate (72 per cent), experienced increased stress (70 per cent) and a loss of confidence (67 per cent).

Experts like Professor Jo Brewis from the Open University told us menopause symptoms can be exacerbated by work and stress caused by the work environment. She pointed to the inability to control ventilation, temperature, light and noise; lack of access to toilets; and having to wear synthetic or restrictive workwear as examples of factors which could make menopause symptoms worse. She and other witnesses reminded us that menopause was a health and safety at work issue, as well as an equality issue.

We also heard that the attitude of colleagues and line managers had a significant impact on women in terms of feeling able to seek support and even stay in their job.

According to our survey, less than a third of respondents who were experiencing menopause told anyone at work. The main reasons given for this were privacy, followed by concern over people’s reactions.

Even when women did tell their colleagues, a significant number felt unsupported. Only 12 per cent of respondents to our survey sought any workplace adjustments. Over a quarter of respondents who did not seek any adjustments said the reason was ‘I was worried about the reaction’.

Worse still, we heard of women experiencing discrimination as a result of undergoing menopause. Legal experts warned that the widely reported employment tribunal claims brought by menopausal women on the grounds of age, sex or disability discrimination were only the tip of the iceberg.

Employers who fail to take action to help their menopausal employees not only risk losing talent and skills, and breaching health and safety and equality law, they are also taking considerable financial risks.

For example, Oxford Economics suggested that if a woman earning £25,000 a year leaves her job due to problematic menopause symptoms, it will cost her employer over £30,500 to replace her.

Similarly, recent research from McKinsey found a clear link between gender diversity (especially at senior levels) and profitability. On a wider scale, a survey of 1,000 women by Health and Her estimated that menopause costs the UK economy 14 million working days per year, in terms of time spent alleviating menopause symptoms.

Because of the complexities of bringing a claim, many women are having to present their menopausal symptoms as a disability achieve proper legal redress. Menopause is not a disability. Photograph: iStock

There are also positive benefits to providing a supportive workplace environment. The incentives for businesses include reputational benefit, attracting and retaining female talent, and avoiding costly turnover and ‘churn’. The hundreds of employers committing to schemes such as Menopause Friendly Accreditation or Wellbeing of Women’s Menopause Workplace Pledge demonstrates how many have grasped the business case for being more ‘menopause-friendly’.

How can employers provide help and support?

So, what can employers do in practical terms to help? There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but a repeated theme that came up in evidence and in our survey responses was listening to the needs of employees and understanding the diversity of the workforce and their experiences.

Awareness raising or training sessions are a good way to start, but so too are small but powerful steps we heard about such as workplace Menopause Champions wearing ‘ask me about Menopause’ t-shirts, or having a free-lending library of books on menopause. There is lots of free advice for businesses, from organisations like the CIPD, TUC, Acas and Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace. We’ve also included good practice examples in our report from organisations as diverse as banks, NHS trusts and police forces to help inspire employers.

In addition, two policies which were raised repeatedly in evidence, which would benefit menopausal employees, were flexible working (in terms of place and hours) and sickness policies that do not trigger performance procedures for repeated individual absences. That is why we have called for the government to finally introduce a day one right to request flexible working, and to work with a public sector employer to trial specific ‘menopause leave’. We also want to see a dedicated Menopause Ambassador appointed, who can work with businesses to disseminate good practice and root out poor practice.

Of course, employers who already accept the considerable evidence base for making their businesses ‘menopause friendly’ might wonder why we have proposed legal reform. Put quite simply, we have heard that the Equality Act as it stands it simply not providing an adequate safety net for menopausal employees facing discrimination.

Because of the complexities of bringing a claim, many women are having to present their menopausal symptoms as a disability to achieve proper legal redress. Menopause is not a disability. These women deserve better, which is why we have asked the government to consider introducing a new protected characteristic of menopause.

We hope that our report will serve as a clarion call to government, healthcare professionals and businesses that we must consolidate on the considerable progress we have made in relation to supporting menopausal women over the last few years.

It is time to celebrate their contributions to society and the economy and help them thrive. It makes legal, economic and social sense. Support for menopausal employees must be seen as an essential component of ‘business as usual’.

Read the report here

Caroline Nokes is Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee

Follow Caroline Nokes MP at: carolinenokes.com


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