Following the recent headlines about campaigns for menopause leave, we thought it was time we did our own blog about how it can impact workers, and why every company should have a menopause workplace policy.
Women make up just under 50% of the current workforce, in some industries this number is much higher, and a large number of those women will go through (or are going through) the menopause at some point in their working lives.
Yet, a study in 2022 showed that of some 2000 women asked, 18% have considered quitting their job because of menopause symptoms. This could mean that up to a million women are at risk of leaving the workforce if they deem the situation untenable during this temporary transition period. And therein lies the kicker – the menopause is a temporary occurrence, and your career shouldn’t be under threat because of this. So, why are women considering the worst-case scenario at all?
What is menopause and perimenopause?
For those unfamiliar with what the menopause actually entails, the menopause is a natural process experienced by those who menstruate. It occurs when the ovaries stop producing eggs and the hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone) begin falling.
This usually occurs between the ages of 45-55, and takes about 7 years to fully end, with perimenopause being the dropping of hormone levels and full menopause being once a woman has not had a period for 12 consecutive months.
It is the symptoms that accompany the menstrual impact of the menopause and the perimenopause that cause so much disruption to the working day.
Symptoms of menopause can include: hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and decreased sex drive. Some women may also experience irregular periods, heavy bleeding, or other physical symptoms. They can be disruptive and impact a woman’s quality of life with brain fog, depression, heightened anxiety and fatigue also being common side effects. Menopausal women are also at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and urinary tract infections.
There are also the mental health implications to consider, especially if the onset is earlier than average. While this is not directly linked to work, it is always a good idea to have mental health strategies to support your workers, menopausal or not.
So, even though this is a natural and unavoidable part of life for at least half of the population, it remains one of the last taboos. This is both because it brings up the little-discussed subject of a woman’s age, but also because anything women’s health-related is deemed uncomfortable to men within a work environment.
Do we need a menopause workplace policy?
What was previously considered a private matter, can actually be a debilitating condition that affects every aspect of the sufferer’s life, and work is no exception.
While some women will experience mild symptoms, many will not, and will need to make major changes to aspects of their lives in order to cope. It is up to business owners and line managers to meet them halfway, in order to ensure the disruption and discomfort is minimal on both sides.
So, why would you need a policy? Can’t they just discuss it with the manager, like any other health related issues.
Technically, yes they could. But most sickness and health-related procedures are based on the idea that someone will be temporarily sick, maybe even completely incapacitated and thus unable to work.
The menopause is different. In some cases, it can last up to 14 years, and while there may be instances where full time off may be needed, most of the time the woman can still work, and want to work, but may need some adjustments during this time.
Sometimes employers need reminding that we are not robots, who work perfectly 100% of the time, with no variation from person to person. Not to mention the insidious culture that believes that having time off or edits to the ‘way things have always been done’ is inherently a cover for slacking off. Without having a standalone policy for menopause you will constantly come up against ways that this unique situation does not conform to usual sick days, and everyone suffers then.
Then there is the subject matter itself.
Some feel unable to disclose that they are menopausal. This could be from embarrassment, the feeling that they will be ridiculed, not taken seriously, seen as weak or unable to work as usual, or in some instances that their job security could be jeopardised. So they have to hide or mask their symptoms, blaming other causes, or simply soldiering on, with the work potentially suffering, and them being judged without the true nature of the situation being understood.
A lot of the time this is exacerbated when there is a mixed gender workplace, or when the superior is male. The idea that men do not want to hear about women’s health issues and that mentioning the cause is ‘too much information’ effectively shuts down any discussion that could move on to finding solutions. This type of dismissive behaviour could border on discrimination.
While employers have a duty not to discriminate under the Equality Act 2010, it does still happen, not helped by the fact that the menopause has been seen for a long time as something to be made light of; a reference to reaching a certain age; being weak or unable to perform the most basic of tasks.
The alternative is that some women see leaving their job as the only answer. This shouldn’t be the only option. It is vital to remember that these people want to continue working, but may need some changes to the way things were done before.
Having a menopause workplace policy means that you sidestep all of these issues, as everyone will already know what set of procedures there are to follow.
How menopause is affecting the workplace
Ignore the risks of leaving it all up to your employees at your own peril – here are some of the ways in which not having a menopause workplace policy implemented may harm your business:
- Unhappy workers – When a worker has to work in uncomfortable conditions or feels their feelings are either being unheard or ignored, this will have an impact on the morale, both in the individual and within the team. They don’t say happier workers work better for nothing.
- Avoidable sick leave – if the worker feels that they cannot discuss the problem, they may make up a different cause and need to take a sick day to avoid work altogether. Equally avoidable is the sick day that happens because small changes haven’t been made to make them able to do their work, such as access to toilets or lenient breaks and working times.
- The potential to lose talent – When you hire someone, you are investing in training them up and making them ever better at the work that they do. Yet you may lose this talent if you do not support them when they are going through the menopause. Plus, the current job seeker is a lot more savvy than before; not having a policy in place could turn off potential future employees from coming to work for you in the first place.
- Lower standard of work – then there is the less quantifiable impact: the work. Anyone who is unhappy, stressed or in pain will simply not be able to perform as well as if they were not. While you cannot avoid the symptoms of the menopause itself, you can make life a lot easier for those suffering, which in term will lead to a better work performance.
- Potential legal issues further down the line – As well as laws against discrimination there are various other legal issues that the menopause skirts on the borders of, such as disability. A policy would provide care for your employees but also help to make sure that any legal ramifications are avoided too. Another important thing to consider is The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). This requires that employers ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers. Under the Act, employers are required to do risk assessments under the Management Regulations. This should include specific risks to menopausal women if they are employed.
What is a menopause workplace policy?
A menopause workplace policy is a document that covers what your company will do in order to help support its workers who are going through the menopause. It can be as comprehensive as you need it to be, and specific to your own unique workplace and industry. It will be an outline of the steps (legal, practical and procedural) that will be taken so that women can continue to do their work safely, with adjustments available for symptoms, without the risk of discrimination, ridicule or judgement.
There is a campaign going at the moment, called the menopause workplace pledge, that is trying to get every business to have their own stand alone policy. More than 2500 companies have signed the pledge, including some of the biggest names in British industry.
What does a menopause-friendly workplace look like?
Here are just a few of the ways that businesses can alter the way they work – and their environment- to make life easier for someone going through the menopause or perimenopause.
- Phased returns after sickness leave.
- Flexible working hours, so that if the worker has a bad bout of symptoms, they have the ability to catch up. Equally if their sleep is disrupted, they can remedy that before getting back to work at a later time than usual. The work gets done so this really shouldn’t be an issue.
- Hybrid work locations, or more specifically, the ability to do their work from home (if possible) when the symptoms are too bad to leave the house, but not so much that they cannot work.
- Training for managers and senior staff, for empathy as much as information on the symptoms and impact of the menopause.
- Extra breaks as and when required.
- Scheduled Time off for medical appointments, without repercussions.
- A zero tolerance policy on belittling humour or language, regardless of if it is directly about the menopause.
- Ample access to washrooms, with sanitary bin facilities.
- Heat is usually the major problem with menopausal women, and this can be impacted and worsened by poor ventilation, heating or access to cool water.
- A comfortable break room to retreat to in times of excess stress, panic or simply when dealing with hot flushes.
It is always a good idea to have a workplace where people feel valued and comfortable, especially during times when they feel most vulnerable.
While here at VR Sani-co, we work hard to ensure that your washroom facilities are kept in tip-top condition, we also champion the understanding and protection of women’s health. This doesn’t stop once menstruation does, and it’s high time that the menopause is treated with the same attention and dignity that other health-related issues are, especially within the working world.