Tomorrow is world menopause day - a day when organisations across the globe will be promoting ways for women to manage menopause and help promote their long-term health.
Employers are already starting to recognise that the women they employ may need support during the menopause and many have policies and procedures in place. But there's still a long way to go. I recently attended a conference designed to help employers recognise and support menopause in the workplace. One of the speakers told the horrified audience about a team bonding exercise that ended up alienating at least one person. Each member of staff was asked to describe another. Most did so respectfully and concentrated on positive attributes. But, one described their middle aged colleague as "red, hot and sweaty". She was mortified and felt even more self conscious about her symptoms.
Women in work
51% of the population is female. Of these, 71% work and 4.3 million women over 50 years of age are in the workforce. That figure is expected to rise. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills predicts that the UK workforce in 2030 will be 'more multi-generational as well as older and female'. Employers that sideline menopause as a 'women's issue' will lose out.
Employers must make sure that their workplaces support women and help them remain in work. If they don't they will lose valuable skills. That means raising awareness and offering support and flexibility wherever possible.
What age does menopause affect women?
Menopause is a natural part of ageing. It happens to all women and can last many years. It's defined as when a woman has her last period and this usually occurs between the ages of 45 - 55 but it can start much earlier or later. According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians, 1 in 100 women will experience a premature menopause (when periods stop before the age of 40).
The length of a woman's menopause varies and it can last for many years.
It's estimated that 75% of women experience symptoms, and 25% of those have extreme symptoms.
Physical symptoms include the well known 'hot flush', night sweats, tiredness, joint stiffness and other aches and pains. But women often experience less obvious symptoms including 'brain fog', forgetfulness, anxiety, depression and panic attacks. This can lead to a loss of confidence.
HRT is available (and apparently does a good job of ameliorating symptoms) but it can't be prescribed for all women. Plus, many women don't attribute the myriad of symptoms they have to the menopause and many doctors don't recognise the underlying cause either. According to academic research on menopausal women's needs at the workplace, cognitive behavioural therapy is also an effective option to help manage symptoms.
How employers can help
Menopause is not well understood or provided for in many workplace cultures, policies or training. That needs to change.
Many large employers - particularly in the public sector - are leading the way and have appointed champions to open up discussions, develop suitable policies and support women.
Many organisational changes are free and relatively easy to implement. For example, workplace characteristics that make symptoms worse include: high temperatures, poor ventilation, humidity, no access to quiet or restful spaces, noise, dryness in the atmosphere and a lack of natural light.
To overcome these, employers should consider providing breakout areas that offer quiet places to work in open plan offices, cold water stations and desk fans.
Other options might be to allow women to make changes to their usual working pattern, including when or where they work.
Management attitudes also need to change. It's extremely important to understand that there will be some days when colleagues aren't themselves and may take longer to clarify their thoughts, responses or may want to check something that their manager thought was already clear.
Employers that take the time to understand how the menopause is affecting individual employees (rather than assuming that everyone needs the same thing) will stand a much better chance of retaining the experience, knowledge and support their organisation needs.
The legal context
I've blogged before about the potential link between menopausal symptoms and disability and you can find further information here.
My colleague, partner Jenny Arrowsmith is an expert in this area and has lectured widely on this subject. Please contact her if you need help drafting a policy, training your staff or you would like to attend her next event on the legal aspects of the menopause on Thursday 14 November in Leeds.