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Menopause at work – how bosses can best support their employees

Written by: Joanna Chatterton
Published on: 13 Sep 2022
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Image: © Elena / Adobe Stock

Image: © Elena / Adobe Stock

Recent reports of an acute shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the UK have highlighted the considerable difficulties that symptoms of the perimenopause or menopause can create for women, both in their personal lives and at work.

Employers are increasingly aware of the need to engage with and offer support to menopausal staff, not least because women above the age of 50 are the fastest growing section of the UK workforce.

Recent research conducted with the assistance of the Fawcett Society1 found that 8 out of 10 women said their employer had not shared information, trained staff or put in place a menopause absence policy.

What is the menopause?

The menopause is generally defined as the period when menstruation ceases following hormonal changes. The period of time over which this occurs can vary extensively, although it normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.

The stage before menopause is known as perimenopause, which typically has similar symptoms, but can begin much earlier than the menopause itself and last many years.

Why should employers care?

Common symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause include irregular periods, fatigue, night sweats, hot flushes, brain fog and concentration problems, anxiety and depression, mood swings and panic attacks.

The nature of the symptoms and the length of time they may last (which will fluctuate from employee to employee) may have a significant detrimental impact on employees’ ability to perform their roles.

Indeed, 1 in 10 women who worked during their menopause went as far as leaving their job due to their symptoms, according to the Fawcett Society research.

These departures may well lead to a knock-on effect on diversity targets, and the loss of accumulated knowledge and specific skill sets of senior employees, which could be hard to replace in a competitive labour market. The House of Commons Women and Equalities select committee also reported survey results showing that symptoms have prompted more than a third of women to miss work2.

Whether an employee needs to take time off work, managers may also notice a change in a menopausal employee’s performance levels, engagement with the work role, and/or interaction with colleagues, which will require sensitive investigation.

Given the impact for employers, it is recommended they take a number of key steps to turn awareness of workplace issues relating to the menopause into an action plan.

Initiate positive conversations

An important initial step for employers is to break the taboo that can often surround the topic of the menopause, either because of employee embarrassment, or a lack of understanding of what is involved and the impact it can have on employees.

Providing employees with accurate information and an opportunity to openly discuss menopause issues will encourage colleagues to talk about their experiences, and perhaps ask for help at an earlier stage. One way to achieve this is to host guest speakers on menopause-related topics, with encouragement for the entire workforce to attend. Although it may be difficult to achieve, engagement from male employees can go a long way to making staff feel their employer is offering genuine support.

Banish the banter

Menopause-related tribunal cases have steadily increased over the past few years, with 10 cases citing the menopause in the first six months of 2021 alone. These decisions demonstrate that one employee’s idea of “banter” may be viewed by another employee as sex, age or, in some cases, disability discrimination (if symptoms are sufficiently debilitating they meet the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010).

Badly handled conversations or ill-conceived “jokes” about symptoms such as hot flushes can quickly overstep the mark into employee harassment. It is important to remind employees that professionalism is always expected at work and inappropriate behaviour relating to the menopause will not be tolerated.

Introduce a menopause policy

A workplace menopause policy presents an opportunity to explain the support and guidance on offer to employees, who their first point of contact should be to discuss any menopause-related issues and the positive way in which they can expect things to be handled.

However, simply producing a standalone policy without taking further action to ensure that it is embedded in the organisation is likely to be a pointless exercise.

Train managers

Once a policy has been introduced, targeted training for managers and supervisors will further bolster its contents and the employer’s aim of supporting employees.

Most managers will also benefit from guidance on how to have difficult conversations (not necessarily just in relation to the menopause), and the importance of handling things sensitively and with respect. This is a useful workplace skill with longer-term benefits for those in leadership positions.

Risk assess and consider adjustments

Employers who are aware they have menopausal employees should consider conducting health and safety risk assessments to identify any specific issues or risks that are likely to have a negative impact.

As well as good employment practice, this is an important part of an employer’s broad duties to protect the health and safety of its employees.

Consideration should be given to whether any adjustments can be made to the working environment to assist with symptoms. The solution may be practical and relatively simple; the provision of a desk fan, or moving a desk closer to a window, to assist with hot flushes, for example. Alternatively, a dedicated rest area, so employees can take time out away from colleagues.

It may also be necessary to consider adjustments to an employee’s working pattern to provide flexibility when symptoms are particularly difficult. The option to work from home and avoid crowded public transport may be particularly helpful.

If an employee’s symptoms amount to a disability under the Equality Act, then a legal obligation is placed on the employer to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any disadvantages caused.

Manage issues appropriately

Issues associated with menopause symptoms are likely to engage and crossover with an employer’s pre-existing HR policies. For example, time off work will involve a sickness absence policy; a downturn in performance due to “brain fog” may impact on annual appraisals or engage a performance management policy.

In all cases, care should be taken to ensure internal policies are followed in the normal way, and that no difference exists in treatment of the menopausal employee (compared to a male employee with a medical condition, for example).

Conclusion

The need for employers to engage with the impact of the menopause on the workforce is likely to gain momentum.

The outcome of a recent inquiry held by the House of Commons Women and Equalities select committee is awaited and may lead to legislative change, among other developments. One of the issues under consideration is whether a need exists for the current law to change to provide specific menopause protection.

An additional financial incentive exists for employers to take early supportive action. It may avoid costly grievance and discrimination proceedings further down the line.

 

References

1. Fawcett Society (2022). Menopause and the workplace, https://bit.ly/3OYF0Hg

2. Women and Equalities Committee (2022). “Considerable stigma” faced by women going through menopause in the workplace, https://bit.ly/3IwLaMw