Menopause – the workplace issue nobody wants to talk about

Dr Louise Slaney, medical director, Iqarus
Dr Louise Slaney, medical director, Iqarus
Opinion by Louise Slaney

Did you know that around 13 million women in the UK are currently peri- or post-menopausal? The answer is probably not, because despite menopause being an issue that will at some point affect more than half of the population (52% are female), it remains a taboo subject.

That could be because menopause is a normal life event. It usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age and its symptoms, including tiredness, poor concentration, insomnia, low confidence and hot flushes, usually last between four and eight years.

But it is not a medical ‘condition’ or ‘illness’ and so the myriad symptoms that can accompany the ‘change’ are all too often brushed aside. And in the workplace, where women now represent nearly half of the UK labour force, that would be is a big mistake.

Three out of five (59%) working women say the menopause has had a negative impact on them at work, according to new research by the CIPD. Almost a third of women (30%) said they had taken sick leave because of their symptoms yet only a quarter (25%) felt able to tell the truth about their absence. The reasons given for not outlining the true cause of absence included privacy concerns (45%), embarrassment (34%) and unsupportive management (32%).

A quarter of women suffer with severe symptoms of menopause, which not only has a significant impact on the individual, it affects their work colleagues too. And the more troublesome the symptoms, the less engaged women feel at work. They experience less job satisfaction, their commitment to their employment is lowered and their intention to quit their job is greater.

This impact of menopause symptoms in the workplace runs the risk of being either misdiagnosed as mental ill-health or incorrectly identified as a performance issue, which means efforts to rectify the situation will likely be misplaced.

So what can employers do to support their menopausal staff? It is important to instill a workplace culture in which women feel comfortable asking for help when required.

This begins with ensuring line managers are educated and trained to be able to hold sensitive conversations with affected women and make necessary adjustments. These could include adapting the workplace environment where appropriate by adjusting the temperature or providing fans or offering the opportunity for flexible hours.

Healthy living and wellbeing guidance can also help in the management of the menopause. It should include a recommendation that women seek advice from their GPs on the ways they can manage their symptoms, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has the potential to not only greatly improve their quality of life but also their ability to function at work.

In essence, menopause should be included in a company’s occupational health policy and treated like any other health condition. Employers should be open and supportive and create opportunities to facilitate discussion. The UK has an ageing labour force and the business reasons for proactively managing an age-diverse workforce are compelling.

The skills and experience of older workers represent a significant investment that could be lost if an employee doesn’t feel supported through their condition. Menopausal women whose symptoms lead to reduced engagement and job satisfaction and an increased inclination to end their employment could be lost from the workforce.

Implementing an occupational health policy that includes clear guidance and best practice for the management of menopause in the workplace is vital to maintaining engagement, productivity, happiness and wellbeing among affected women, which is good news for everyone involved.

Dr Louise Slaney, Medical Director, Iqarus