Supporting employees through the menopause

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Written by: Alcumus
15th June

Recognising the impact of women’s reproductive health issues on the UK’s physical, mental and social wellbeing is a topic which has been increasing in importance over the last few years, not least because the biggest increases in employment rates over the last 30 years have been for women aged 60-64 (from 18% to 41%) and for women aged 55-59 (from 49% to 69%)..

Currently, around one in eight of British workforces are women over 50. By 2022, it is forecast that around one in six will be women over 50.

In addition to financial concerns, the reasons for such a shift in employment rates have been the increases in the state pension age, the abolition of the default retirement age, an ageing population and employers’ efforts to retain skilled workers.

These increased rates of employment among women aged 50 and above means that more working women than ever before will experience the menopause. As our population ages, and as gender equality increases in the workplace, companies need to consider finding ways of providing additional support to those who need it.

What is the Menopause?

When a woman who has previously menstruated has no periods for 12 consecutive months and there is no other biological or physiological cause for this, this is deemed to be the menopause. Whilst widely understood as the definition, this ignores the various other physical and psychological side-effects which can last for several years, although, many women may experience no symptoms at all. The menopause is preceded by the perimenopause, during which the body prepares itself for menopause. The perimenopause can also last several years and can involve similar symptoms to the menopause itself.

As a society, we do not tend to discuss this time in someone’s life, and many women with menopause symptoms suffer in silence at work and without the right support, symptoms can make it difficult for women to work to the best of their abilities.

Evidence suggests that paid employment boosts self-esteem and better psychological health amongst older women.  Therefore, making a few simple changes to the working environment can make a big difference – even just talking about the menopause openly can reduce the impact of some symptoms and enable people to continue performing well in their roles.

It is not always the case that women in their mid to late 40s and 50s are those experiencing menopause. Around 1% of women will experience menopausal symptoms below the age of 40, sometimes in their 30s and even earlier. To be a truly inclusive employer, companies must also recognise that some trans-men will also be going through the menopause.

It’s worth mentioning that your male employees may also have family and friends who are experiencing the menopause, so it is useful to all employees to understand the changes that they are going through.

According to the NHS, common symptoms of menopause are:

Menopausal symptoms can begin months or even years before your periods stop and last around 4 years after your last period, although some women experience them for much longer.

Additionally, some people will experience other symptoms such as:

  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • joint aches
  • skin irritation and dryness
  • dry eyes
  • urinary problems
  • hair loss

As one can imagine, experiencing one of or more of these symptoms can be highly distressing, especially when doing so in silence. It is common for mental health issues to develop as a result of experiencing menopause and some employees may need medical intervention, including hormonal treatment (know at HRT), counselling and various other topical treatments to avoid discomfort.

In 2017, Public Health England (PHE) published “The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK” which was the first report of its kind. The report revealed the extent of the impact that the menopause can typically have on women’s ability to work and go about their daily lives.

The role of line managers in supporting women experiencing menopause transition is therefore key and the PHE report supported the need for an open and supportive approach. It recommends changing organisational cultures; compulsory equality and diversity training; providing specialist advice; tailored absence policies; flexible working patterns for mid-life women; and fairly low-cost environmental changes. The overall emphasis is on a variety of approaches to menopause transition at work, to cater for women’s differing experiences.

The Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers to provide a safe working environment for their employees which protects their health and wellbeing and to undertake any necessary risk assessments to understand and mitigate any risk that the workplace may pose. Some physical workplace factors can make symptoms worse, so companies must respond to these requirements. For more information on this, please contact our Health & Safety team.

Additionally, the Equality Act 2010 tells us that individuals must not be discriminated against because of a protected characteristic. Whilst the menopause is not covered specifically under the Act, case law shows us discrimination on these grounds can be covered under sex discrimination (as seen in Merchant vs BT plc ET/1401305/11) and that the resulting symptoms could be classed a as disability (as in Davies v Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service S/4104575/2017) if they meet the required definition.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2019/20, age discrimination claims received the largest average award (£39,000) compared to other discrimination jurisdictions. The highest maximum award in 2019/20 was for disability discrimination, at £266,000. In addition to the damage to your brand, legal costs and time spent dealing with the claim, employers need to take inclusivity seriously.

Effective management of team members with menopausal symptoms that are impacting on their work will help you to improve your team’s morale, retain valuable skills and talent, and reduce sickness absence. Good people management is fundamental to supporting employee health and well-being.

By creating a policy to deal with and support employees going through menopause, you are not only protecting your business, but you are providing a means of communication to encourage employees to speak with their manager, HR or other appropriate person if they feel like they require extra support. As with all medical issues, your employees may not wish to disclose person information but by raising awareness, you may be able to reduce the stigma which could make your employees feel more comfortable in asking for help when they need it.

Once contact has been made, an organisation should take reasonable steps to assist and improve their employee’s daily work routine. Considering items such as your employee’s metal health, bathroom requirements, uniform requirements, office temperature, access to natural light, additional rest breaks, time off and flexible working can all provide a great support, meaning that your affected employees will be more engaged and more productive than they may have been otherwise.