Many employers are waking up to the realities of menopause, and the benefits of providing a supportive environment for women at work.
CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) research shows that 30 per cent of UK employers now have menopause policies, up from 10 per cent in 2019. But I am increasingly worried that the government has not appreciated the need to seize momentum.
Menopause symptoms, ranging from sleepless nights and mood swings to heavy bleeding and suicidal ideation, can make work unbearable. Countless studies demonstrate how a lack of support around the menopause transition is responsible for women over 50 losing confidence at work, reducing their hours, passing up promotions or leaving their jobs altogether.
Before the pandemic, nearly one million women in the UK had left their jobs due to the menopause. In July, the cross-party parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, called for urgent action to stem this haemorrhaging of talented and experienced women from the workforce.
We made 12 targeted recommendations to government. But to our disappointment the government’s response – three-and-a-half months late – rejected six of them outright and did not commit to any new work to address the other six. This fails to match the urgency of the situation, and at a time when the government is announcing expensive policies to get the over 50s back into work, is a glaring omission.
We asked for model menopause policies to be developed that would help businesses, large and small, easily find and adopt measures to support and retain staff. The government simply branded this as “not necessary”, despite acknowledging its role in leading the way to develop and disseminate good practice.
Another recommendation was to work with a public sector employer to pilot specific menopause leave, which would have provided data to learn from and given a strong signal that employers should be taking menopause seriously. The government dismissed this as potentially ‘counterproductive’ but failed to explain why or how.
When we followed up with the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, she said that a menopause leave pilot would require “far more resources” than what government is currently doing. But that is precisely our point. This issue affects half of the population, and the government’s current investment is not enough to enact the mass cultural shift we so desperately need.
Stigma, shame and dismissive attitudes at work
We recently heard from high profile campaigners Carol Vorderman, Karen Arthur, Kate Muir and Mariella Frostrup who were appalled by the government’s response. They are flooded with stories every day from women facing stigma, shame and dismissive attitudes at work. It is telling that many who write in with their experiences are not willing to reveal their or their employers’ identity for fear of consequences. All this points to a larger role for government in educating employers and leading the way in providing practical solutions.
Kate Muir, who wrote the book Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (but were too afraid to ask) and produced Davina McCall’s influential documentary on the menopause, told us that the private sector, with health insurance and flexible working provision, is ahead of government in the fact that they realise supporting menopausal women at work is an enormous cost saver.
Symptoms ‘can be managed with proper advice and treatment’
The costs to recruiting new staff, of defending potential employment tribunal claims and risking reputational damage should not be underestimated. Even the most debilitating symptoms can be managed with the proper advice and treatment, and an understanding and supportive workplace. Practical changes include cooler spaces for those experiencing hot flushes, regular breaks and more open conversations around women’s needs.
We also recommended that the government consult on making menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, to protect women from unfair treatment. Kemi Badenoch asserted that menopause is already covered by sex, age and disability, but we heard loud and clear from women and legal experts that it does not work in practice. Employment tribunals are a last resort, but in a fair and just society, they need to work.
We also made recommendations around further training for GPs on menopause, Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) availability and cost, and the need for a public health campaign. We hope to get answers about why these recommendations weren’t accepted in a hearing with the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, Maria Caulfield, in June.
The government recently appointed Helen Tomlinson as its menopause employment champion to advise on workplace support and raise awareness of menopause related issues. I welcome this and it is something the Committee called for in its report; however, we will wait to see how effective she is in making the step change we so desperately need.
The government response to our report was disappointing but it has only strengthened our resolve to keep pursuing the issue. My Committee will keep assessing progress, building our evidence base and pressing ministers for further action on menopause.
Employers will be well served by treating menopause as the health and safety issue that it is and being early adopters of inclusive menopause policies. In the words of Carol Vorderman, this is not an is-sue that can be put back in its box.
More on the Committee’s inquiry into menopause and the workplace here
Follow Caroline Nokes MP at: @carolinenokes
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