The menopause, otherwise known as the “change of life”, is a natural stage of life that millions of women workers are either experiencing now, or will go through in the future. The menopause is marked by changes in hormones and the end of menstruation (when a woman’s periods stop for 12 consecutive months).
Symptoms of menopause can vary enormously – from the mildly uncomfortable to the incredibly debilitating. They include hot flushes, palpitations, night sweats and sleep disturbance, fatigue, concentration loss, memory loss, mood swings, skin irritation, depression and loss of confidence. Urinary problems may also occur during the menopause, and many women have recurrent lower urinary tract infections, such as cystitis. It is common for the need to pass urine to arise more often or even urgently.
For most women, the menopause occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, the average age for the menopause is now 52; although a minority of women can experience it in their 30s or earlier. The symptoms can last from four to eight years.
There are around 4.3 million women over the age of 50 currently working in Britain, and consequently, an increasing number of women of menopausal age are working in the UK. 70% of women of menopausal age are in work.
Issues at Work
Menopausal symptoms can prove embarrassing for some women, making them reluctant to discuss the issue openly. Working with male colleagues can increase the level of embarrassment and discomfort, e.g. during hot flushes. Some women suspect the menopause has a negative impact on their Managers’ and colleagues’ perceptions of their competence at work, and feel anxious about these perceived performance deficits, leading to a loss of confidence. Their performance can suffer, and situations which would normally have been dealt with easily, become more difficult.
A bad night’s sleep can affect concentration, while heavy periods or hot flushes can be physically distressing and embarrassing. The psychological effects can also impact relationships at work. For some, the symptoms are so severe that women are forced to leave their job altogether.
A recent research report, The Effects of Menopause Transition on Women’s Economic Participation in the UK, from the University of Leicester, lists the negative effects on menopausal women’s quality of working life and performance at work as including:
- reduced engagement with work
- reduced job satisfaction
- reduced commitment to the organisation
- higher sickness absence
- an increased desire to leave work altogether
The research found evidence to suggest that these outcomes have a negative effect on some women’s time management, emotional resilience, and the ability to complete tasks effectively.
Support at Work
Often employers have very little understanding of the difficulties surrounding the menopause, and see them as a private matter. Consequently, it is very rarely discussed and organisations are slow to recognise that women of menopausal age may need special consideration. Many women feel that their Managers would be embarrassed if they disclosed their problems, and consequently do not ask for the adjustments that may help them.
Menopausal women have to combat the twin problems of ageism and sexism which face women ‘of a certain age’. Despite the scale of the issue, the menopause if not a taboo subject, still merits scant guidance for employers in helping to support employees through this significant life stage. Women themselves often don’t want to ask for special treatment, and may well be embarrassed. For women working in male-dominated organisations, having to ask for menopause-related sick leave can be embarrassing, particularly when the Line Manager is a young male. According to the website healthtalk.org, relatively few workplaces are responding to their needs.
Treating women as equal to men does not mean treating the two sexes the same. Women are different biologically, and this needs to be considered at work.
The Legal Issues
Employers are required under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and, under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, to make workplaces suitable for the individuals who work in them. The duty under Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to carry out risk assessments should include any specific risks to menopausal women.
To meet the definition in the Equality Act, the symptoms must have a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. The menopause does not itself amount to a disability, but the physiological or physical consequences of going through it can do for those women who suffer significant health problem as a consequence. There are now Tribunal cases that have deemed that the Claimant’s menopausal symptoms have constituted a disability. It is important to note that these cases do not confirm that menopause will automatically be classed as a disability; it depends on how it affects an individual woman at that stage in her life.
Therefore, this type of condition will be judged by the severity and extent of the individual’s symptoms. We were predicting four years ago that the menopause may well be classified as a disability, so we expect other tribunals to come to the same conclusions depending on the symptoms and facts.
In summary, employers have a legal duty to ensure working conditions don’t exacerbate someone’s symptoms, protect women from discrimination.
What does this mean for Employers?
Before making a decision with regards to an individual’s employment, it is important to take all aspects of the individual’s current state into account. Outside of a disciplinary or a capability scenario, employers should take reasonable steps to support an affected employee in coping with her condition.
The bigger issue is what can employers do generally to reduce their chances of having to deal with a menopause-related problem.
Four issues emerge as areas for possible improvements at work:
- greater awareness of Managers about the menopause as a possible occupational health issue for women;
- increased flexibility of working hours and working arrangements;
- access to informal and formal sources of support, including Occupational Heath, where appropriate;
- improvements in workplace arrangements;
In more detail, this means:
- Building awareness of the condition, considering practices and creating healthy environments for workers. The menopause should be on employers’ agendas in order to make the workplace a safe and understanding space for the women going through this phase of life. Employers can help by communicating to their workforce that health-related problems, such as the menopause, are ‘normal’.
- As many women experience tiredness, it is good idea to offer flexible working hours, job sharing, and opportunities to work from home. Flexible working is something every UK worker has the right to request anyway. Women should be encouraged to prioritise work-life balance, and maintain firm boundaries between work and non-working life.
- With any longstanding health-related condition, sympathetic and appropriate support from employers and Line Management is crucial. However, Managers can only be sympathetic to these needs and make suitable work adjustments if they are aware of a problem. People are more inclined to disclose if they regard Managers as supportive, and there is a culture of openness about health issues. The key is good and honest communication between the Manager and the employee. Women are more likely to discuss menopausal issues with somebody they feel able to talk to. Employers can raise awareness of the menopause through health promotion programmes, and awareness training for Managers. They can also encourage social support within the workplace. This could include information packs, mentoring schemes and lunch time support.
- There are no universal easy solutions to workplace arrangements, but some simple actions may help to ensure the working environment does not exacerbate menopausal symptoms:
- Relocation of desks closer to opening windows, provision of desk fans and/or more control over heating.
- Plentiful supplies of cold water and more frequent toilet breaks.
- Rethinking of uniforms, specifically avoiding nylon. Employers should provide menopausal women with lighter, non-synthetic workplace clothing, uniforms or corporate clothing to accommodate hot flushes.
- Clean, well-equipped and comfortable toilet facilities near workstations should be provided for women experiencing urinary incontinence, with showers, washing facilities and quiet workplace rest areas.
- Access to natural light, which has been identified as having a positive effect on mood and the absorption of calcium during menopause transition (pcs), or light boxes if natural light is not easily available.
- A reduction of exposure to noise to help reduce fatigue.
Improvements in workplace arrangements should become accepted and normal. The changes required to provide these improvements need not be costly or complicated. Above all, it is important to listen to women, and respond sympathetically to any requests for adjustments at work.
There are several things women can do outside of work to improve their quality of life in the workplace. Education is important, but the focus should not just be on the woman, but what the employer can do. As a Manager, you can remain hopeful and optimistic – women experiencing the menopause often go through different types of emotions, such as anxiety and depression. These feelings do subside, so encourage women to discuss how they feel, as these feelings are very normal.
Some businesses have branded themselves as “menopause friendly” as a means of helping recruitment. We are not advocating this, nor are we keen on creating Menopause Policies, but it should be part of your approach to the health, safety and wellbeing of your workforce.
Approaches that should be considered include the following.
- Improving organisational culture to make it clear that the organisation supports menopausal women.
- Providing women in the workplace with relevant information. Information should include how they can get support for any issues that arise as a result of the menopause. Any literature should encourage women employees to discuss any relevant health concerns with their GP.
- Supporting women in the workplace by training Managers to understand how the menopause can affect work, and what adjustments may be necessary to support women who are experiencing it. In larger organisations, support can also be provided by allowing the provision of informal support for mid-life women during menopause transition. This can include women’s workplace networks, online discussion forums and helpline numbers.
By supporting women through the menopause, and fostering an age and gender inclusive workplace, your organisation will benefit from:
- increased engagement and loyalty, as well as lower sickness absence and employee turnover;
- will help you tap into the valuable skills and talent that men and women of all ages have to offer;
Woman are an integral part of most workforces these days, so as they age it is inevitable that they will experience the menopause at work. Whilst some women will be lucky enough to suffer minimally, the majority will not, so it is important that all employers, whatever their size, take on board their needs, and reassure them that they are still actively contributing during the menopause, irrelevant of whether they happen to temporarily look hot and bothered or rather tired!
If you would like to raise any concerns, our Consultants would be pleased to advise you on any element of the issues arising from this newsletter.