The symptoms of menopause can vary greatly but include problems such as depression, hot flashes, insomnia, and memory issues. If it sounds distressing, well, it is. Symptoms of menopause can last up to 10 years, and one in four cases comes with severe symptoms. There’s also little support for employees going through menopause, which is especially concerning since in some countries, up to 8 out of 10 people who go through menopause are still in the workplace.
So what can we do to help?
Although menopause will affect roughly half of the world’s population at some point, employees that go through this at the workplace will almost invariably be dealing with this mammoth life-altering event on their own. And most likely, the process will be surrounded by a veil of stigma and isolation.
Currently, women or trans men going through menopause face life-changing symptoms as well as hurdles in the workplace, leaving many feeling like they have no other option but to leave their jobs. This isn’t just a social or health issue — it’s also an economic one, as this trend is also bad for companies. Experts say firms risk losing valuable, irreplaceable employees whose maturity and experience are key to their teams and departments.
As experts expect the number of postmenopausal women to rise to 1.1 billion worldwide by 2025, the potential for this transformative event to impact the global economy is a genuine threat, particularly when entwined with the already damaging shockwaves of a financially-leveling pandemic.
Where are we so far on the rights of menopausal women?
Even in “progressive” countries, like the UK for instance, menopause gets surprisingly little attention.
Rachel Suff, a senior policy adviser for employment relations for The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says, “It’s not enough to simply have a policy which outlines the support that’s available. This must also be underpinned by a culture where people are actively encouraged to have open and supportive conversations,” she explained.
Suff also said that firms should train their line managers to have sensitive conversations about adjustments in the workplace that could help individuals manage the impact of their symptoms at work.
Deborah Garlick, CEO of Henpicked, one of the UK’s largest websites for menopausal women, adds that organizations need to take the time to make sure they are taking the approach that is right for their workforce. “It’s important to appreciate that all organizations are different, from the roles to existing practices,” she explained, emphasizing that listening to employees’ needs and discussing the importance of menopause was vital.
Why isn’t the UK government doing more about this problem?
Well, they are — sort of. The UK government seems to recognize that this is a major problem with financial repercussions, with policymakers encouraging the retention of older women in the workforce to raise the retirement age. Because of this, there is now emerging interest in investigating how employees experience menopause in the workplace. And, of course, the level of managerial support they receive to counteract its impact on productivity.
To address this issue, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) undertook aninquiry in July 2021 on menopause and the workplace, investigating what employers need to be doing to address the problem. “Why are workplaces failing women going through menopause?” They asked, disturbingly describing these employees as “an invisible cohort.”
The inquiry’s chair, the Right Honorable Caroline Nokes, explains:
“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society, and our place on the world stage.”
In another notable finding involving the survey of 2,161 women, researchers extrapolated that menopause symptoms had prompted an estimated 900,000 UK women to leave their jobs. This figure is now closer to 333,000 in a new study. To make matters worse, the respondents are in their late 40s and early 50s, meaning they are eligible for senior roles and are resigning “at the peak of their career.” Creating a ‘ripple effect’ on company productivity and gender-related pay and pension gaps — a devastating blow to human rights.
Additionally, the committee showed that most menopausal employees experience symptoms that negatively affect them at work but don’t tell anyone or seek special accommodation due to fears that they could face prejudice and have their ability questioned. Consequently, the majority of problems reported by employees involved insomnia, memory loss, trouble concentrating, and anxiety or depression—because of this, nearly a third of all participants said they’d taken time off due to symptoms.
Overall, the panel concluded that many workplaces have no menopause policies in place, and affected employees don’t always know how to seek support. To address this, the women who took part in the committee’s survey want employers to make reasonable adjustments and provide greater flexibility. They also feel that employers should open discourse on menopause in the workplace, remove stigma, encourage openness, educate on the issue, and raise awareness.
After reading the committee’s findings, it’s felt that another avenue should also involve menopausal transexual men having more of a say regarding LGBTQIA rights in the workplace: adding their valuable input as to how employers can avoid marginalizing them.
What do women say about menopause in the workplace?
Taking a more personalized approach, the committee found that thirty-one percent of employees experiencing menopause had missed work because of their symptoms. It was also shown that just one in 10 women (11%) had asked for workplace adjustments related to their menopause symptoms, with a quarter (26%) of those who said they had not requested specialized adaptations disclosing they were “worried about the reaction of others.”
Caroline Nokes, a British Member of Parliament, said she was “saddened but not surprised” by the survey results, adding that “Our survey shows us just how common symptoms which have an obvious impact in the workplace are, and how ashamed those experiencing them feel,” she said, disclosing that women of menopausal age were the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce.
But Nokes declared that solutions were in “easy reach” for most organizations. “Much of this is about practical adjustments for employees, and stamping out ‘boorish’ banter that menopause is a ‘women’s problem’ or a joke,” she revealed.
Indeed, results indicated the most common adjustments requested by those going through menopause were simply the request for flexible working hours and temperature control (43% and 36%, respectively).
And while just over half (55 percent) of those who gained adjustments found them helpful, 30 percent of those who requested adjustments were ignored.
The committee determined that training line managers in good people management were critical to this: “By being approachable and listening to people’s concerns, [line managers] can ensure people can access the support they need, such as flexible working or bespoke workplace adjustments depending on the needs of the individual.”
But this is just the tip of the iceberg concerning the lack of noise surrounding this life change, echoed by the dismal results, which showed only 32% of women polled felt supported by their colleagues — a clear sign that peers at work, not just line managers, should be involved in this galvanizing movement.
To facilitate this, experts propose that employers review their existing policies to support menopause, menstrual and reproductive health issues and allow employees to talk to each other about their experiences. “A monthly menopause cafe or virtual women’s health network could be an excellent way to do this.”
However, this does nothing to educate male colleagues as to what menopause entails, insinuating a stereotypical view of the toxic ‘boys club’ at work – suggesting men have neither the capacity nor the empathy to aid their female colleagues experiencing the disabling symptoms of menopause. Is this fair or appropriate? Not at all.
Major companies have signed the Menopause Workplace Pledge
Good news may yet be on the horizon, though. In response to WEC committee findings, major employers in the UK have now signed up for the Menopause Workplace Pledge. The pledge, which promotes menopause as a serious workplace issue, hopes to encourage male and female colleagues to talk openly about menopause to support employees affected by the life change.
So far, AstraZeneca, the BBC, Co-op, Royal Mail, and TSB are just some of 600 employers who have signed the pledge, organized by the Wellbeing of Women organization, to take practical steps to support staff going through menopause.
Meanwhile, Tesco has announced it will change its uniform to incorporate a breathable fabric to help with hot flushes. Furthermore, the agency News UK has said it will cover the cost of HRT treatments for staff and provide desk fans for those who request them.
Likewise, the UK government has reacted to the committee’s findings on menopause by establishing a multi-departmental task force, “To see how we can improve the experience of the menopause,” asserts Maria Caulfield, minister for patient safety and primary care.
Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, also commented on the task force, noting the importance of aiding employees going through menopause and other senior personnel: “We always make the point that the business case for employers is absolutely overwhelming. It is really clear that businesses lose out when older workers drop out of the labor market and that age diversity can bring huge benefits to businesses, as well as the experience and expertise,” he maintains.
So how exactly is menopause affecting work productivity?
Firstly, it’s important to discuss what menopause entails. The medical profession generally defines it as the period after a woman, or trans man has not menstruated for twelve months. But realistically, natural menopause can occur anywhere between 40 and 58 years of age but is most likely to happen around the age of 52. However, some women and trans men undergo menopause even earlier than this.
Menopause symptoms (brought on by estrogen deficiency) aren’t limited to hot flashes and night sweats. Other symptoms include a lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, memory loss, depression, headaches, palpitations, vaginal dryness, fatigue, or even heart attack. For some women, these symptoms can begin years before menopause.
As you can imagine, complaining about this type of symptom can be highly unpleasant — and it can have unpleasant consequences, as a recent study involving 2,000 employees and 500 business owners from Benenden Health showed. In the survey involving individuals suffering ill-health due to menopause, almost one in five (18%) said they were marginalized for this and not given a pay rise or promotion, and 13% said they had to go through a disciplinary procedure. Just as upsetting is the fact that around only one in five (19 percent) of the 2,000 menopausal workers surveyed were aware of any support at work for when they suffer the adverse effects of menopause.
By way of solution, nearly a third (31 percent) of the menopausal women and trans men in the study stated they would value flexible working hours. In contrast to many employees who are reticent to declare menopause, twenty-nine percent stated they would be happy to discuss it. And of those, 27 percent said they would like to be offered mental health support by employers.
In a positive turn, a handful of clinical trials are now beginning to map menopausal symptoms at work. For instance, hot flashes are uncomfortable, but various studies have also linked them to other issues such as insomnia which may cause mood changes, difficulty concentrating, and short-term memory impairment – disrupting work output.
In another study, researchers showed that frequent hot flashes and night sweats increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 50 percent, escalating absences and health costs. And it doesn’t stop there; within a workplace, scientists showed the impact of night sweats could manifest as reduced work capacity and productivity with increased error occurrence, possibly resulting in more workplace accidents or injury rates.
As a synopsis, the studies all explain that very rarely will women or trans men experience just one symptom with any number of menopause symptoms exacerbating each other, having a ripple effect on how someone feels or performs at work.
“For example, let’s say, a person is experiencing forgetfulness,” says Leah Millheiser, chief medical officer at menopause telehealth company Evernow. “And maybe they’re tired because of insomnia, which worsens that forgetfulness. Or, being concerned about forgetting something causes anxiety, which is another symptom of menopause. And that prompts a hot flash, which throws them off because they’re worried about coworkers judging them or assuming they’re not a strong member of the team,” she adds.
Millheiser explains that the resulting snowball effect shows just how deeply menopause can infiltrate a working person’s life at a moment’s notice. And yet, despite the impact of symptoms, the lingering silence surrounding menopause keeps many people from discussing it. Unfortunately, this often leads employees to take legal action where no other remedial support system or services are available, causing additional fees to both parties, management time and involvement, and possible reputational damage to companies.
Are menopausal employees building lawsuits against employers?
Another problem for employers is that building a case against an employer citing menopause as proof of unfair dismissal or direct sex discrimination is becoming increasingly common in the UK. And even though the Equality Act 2010 unbelievably omits menopause, employees are still using this law in employment tribunals to claim menopause-related discrimination by pursuing cases through age, disability, or gender.
In addition to the Equality Act 2010, which seeks to shield employees from discrimination based on age, sex, disability, pregnancy, or religion, the Health and Safety at Work etc 1974 has also been used by employees successfully to bring employers to court.
“The majority of the existing claims being brought rely on disability discrimination and so it is necessary for claimants to overcome the hurdle of whether the menopause or the menopausal symptoms come within the definition of disability which is proving difficult but not impossible as recent successful claims at the Employment Tribunal have shown,” said Daniella McGuigan, a lawyer with Ogletree Deakins International LLP.
In light of this, experts predict the onset of “really big, group lawsuits,” warning that women in larger companies are already setting up their own private menopause groups internally, which could potentially become a problem for employers who refuse to support these employees with official avenues of adaptation or complaints.
To reduce the risk of “costly disputes,” Arrowsmith suggested that having a menopause policy could help firms approach conversations, indicating what support is available and providing a framework for evidencing their response if employees sue them.
However, with a recent Fawcett Society survey of 2,400 people in the UK financial services sector showing just one in five women and trans men disclosed their menopause status to employers, the end of the stigma attached to it does not appear to be in sight just yet.
Andrew Bazeley, manager of policy and public affairs at the Fawcett Society, said that women had told the organization that “menopause is where mental health was five years ago.” Adding that employers have a crucial role in breaking down prejudices and raising awareness.
He suggests firms could integrate menopause into diversity and inclusion efforts, adding, “senior leaders can send an important message that this is not a taboo subject simply by talking about it themselves.” Leading by example, as it were, and setting up official avenues of support.
Easy solutions to a potentially expensive problem
According to the menopausal women and trans men polled in the workplace, these avenues don’t have to be fancy affairs. Often very low-cost and straightforward adjustments were the most requested, such as adapting uniforms for comfort, a desk fan, time off for doctor’s appointments or flexible working hours (even for a short period), more accessible bathrooms, and cold drinking water, as well as seat placement near an open window.
Think tanks also advise firms to allow for absences arising from menopause-related sickness, integrating its symptoms into work appraisals and assessments for promotions. As many offices return to a hybrid working model, these measures are now even more salient as some older workers reconsider whether it’s worth returning at all, risking a secure financial future and retirement for themselves – adding to the already burdened state pension and welfare system.
However, the first step is for employers to be aware of the serious risks they’re taking by not implementing a menopause policy and support system for all employees. They should then concentrate on raising awareness, assessing the diversity (not just the demographic) of their workforces, and, if appropriate, undertaking a risk assessment.
And from that foundation, practical and effective menopause support can be implemented as needed in collaboration with those affected, with continual training to tweak these systems to personalize possible adjustments and support services to every employee. This way, both female and trans rights in the workplace will continue to crystallize and grow, promoting work productivity and economic growth, and improving the country’s overall well-being. Which leads to the conclusive question: what’s the holdup?
Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.
Featured by numerous prestigious brands and publishers, she specializes in clinical trial innovation--expertise she gained while working in multiple positions within the private sector, the NHS, and Oxford University.