At work, it’s common to lament stress, tiredness, or soreness from standing or sitting for long periods of time with your colleagues. In fact, a lot of workplace bonding can happen while being open about relatable struggles, and these struggles are often treated with a casual tone. Why is it, then, that when it comes to menopause, the workplace conversation doesn’t flow as easily?
As with many “women’s issues”, menopause symptoms are not always taken seriously. This lack of care is present even in the medical community, where research into treatment for menopause symptoms is lacking. With even the medical community neglecting people undergoing menopause, it’s no wonder that we may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about this transition in the workplace.
Why talk menopause at work to begin with? There are many reasons, not least of which being that there are about 3.5 million women above the age of 50 working in the UK right now. This doesn’t even include the millions of perimenopausal women, perimenopause referring to the transitional period leading up to menopause, or trans and non-binary people undergoing menopause. Menopause tends to start between the ages of 45 and 55, with 51 being the average age. For about every one in 100 women, menopause starts before the age of 40, and perimenopausal symptoms can start years before.
These symptoms include hot flushes, headaches, brain fog, anxiety and difficulty concentrating: all things that will affect anyone’s experience at work. Symptoms vary from person to person, but it has been estimated that 25% of women will experience severe symptoms. With people living longer and working longer, menopause should be treated as a workplace issue, not just a personal one.
Menopause as an occupational health issue
According to a study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 59% of women between 45 and 55 who experience menopause symptoms say that it negatively impacts their work. This is due to increased stress and a decreased ability to concentrate and remain patient with colleagues and clients. The study also found that 30% of women had taken time off work due to menopause symptoms, with only a quarter of them feeling comfortable enough to tell their manager the reason behind taking sick leave.
Organisations like the CIPD are now recommending that managers be trained in having sensitive conversations with colleagues about health issues such as menopause, so that individualised support can be offered. The CIPD guide includes amendments such as giving employees a later start if sleep patterns are disturbed, providing a desk fan to help with hot flushes, and allowing employees to take regular breaks for comfort.
Other studies have stressed the importance of educating senior members at a workplace about menopause and its inevitable impact on employees. One UK survey of menopausal women singled out the most desired workplace adjustment: not flexible hours, not temperature control, but management awareness of menopause as a potential health issue. For these women, an ability to report symptoms to their managers and receive proper workplace care is paramount to continuing their careers. A distressing 10% of women actually stop working altogether due to severe menopause symptoms, making awareness of menopause as a potential health issue all the more important. Organisations such as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) host regular online training sessions to help employers learn how to best support those going through menopause at work.
Making yourself heard
It can feel intimidating to bring up menopause at work, but voicing your struggles is a necessary step in receiving the help you need. Dr Louise Newson, a menopause specialist, highlights the importance of asking for help explicitly, and documenting this process to protect yourself.
The first step is usually to speak with HR or a higher-up who you trust about your symptoms, how they are affecting you at work, and how you would like to be supported. You can mention some of the above guides for reference. If necessary, you can get a letter from your GP to state your case. Talking to someone early on is important, that way your employer cannot say that they were not made aware of your concerns. In some cases, your employer can actually be under legal duty to make certain adjustments to support you at work, so make sure to take note of these conversations for future record.
Despite progress being made, discrimination based on gender and age are still far too common in the workplace. If you are being treated unfairly in a way that is directly related to your menopause, this treatment may fall under harassment or victimisation. In certain cases, menopause symptoms like memory loss, anxiety, or severe bleeding can fall under section 6 of the Equality Act, being classed as a disability. Most people want to avoid legal disputes, but it’s important to know your rights as a worker and protect yourself against discrimination.
Changing the conversation
All too often, women hide their symptoms behind a smile for fear of shame, awkwardness, or straight up discrimination from those around them. For trans and non-binary people experiencing menopause, this act of camoflauging can be even stronger. While providing workplace support for menopausal employees is a corporate issue as well as a legal one, there are steps to be taken by individuals to make work a more comfortable place for everyone.
Chances are if you are suffering from menopause symptoms at work, you are not the only one. You can take action by proposing a menopause education campaign or a support group, suggesting menopause training to HR, or even hosting a talk about menopause and workplace wellbeing. At a base level, something as simple as opening up a conversation with a colleague can be the catalyst to some significant change. The past year has seen Covid-19 triggering powerful new conversations about employee wellbeing, so there has perhaps never been a better time to shine a light on menopause and how it can affect workers.
Written by Emma Olsson