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Why it’s time to start talking about menopause at work

For some women, dealing with menopause in the workplace is easy sailing. They can get on with the working day with barely a symptom. But for others, it’s enough to ruin their relationship with the workplace entirely.

As many as 900,000 women in the UK have quit their jobs due to menopause, and a growing number of women are taking their employers to court citing menopause as proof of unfair dismissal and direct sex discrimination. And yet, menopausal women are the fastest-growing workforce demographic in the UK.

The current picture

All women experience menopause differently. Symptoms can often be physical — such as hot flushes, headaches and poor sleep — or psychological — such as anxiety, low mood, lack of confidence and poor concentration.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue, but unfortunately, for some women, menopause symptoms can be even more difficult to deal with at work.

According to Menopause in the Workplace, the average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51, sometimes earlier. Symptoms may start years before menopause, during the perimenopause phase. The retirement age in the UK is currently 66, but men retire at 64.7 years old on average, while women leave work at 63.6 years old. That means a decade of overlap between menopause symptoms and still being employed!

Women aged 50 to 64 are the fastest-growing, economically active group in the UK, due to issues including the rise in the state pension age for women, increased life expectancy and the impact of COVID-19. Of the 70% of women in employment in the UK, almost 4.5 million are in this age bracket.

900,000 women in the UK have quit their job due menopause

What the law says

Under UK law employees are not allowed specific time off during menopause or to cope with menopausal symptoms. However, a menopausal or perimenopausal employee can be considered as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

It’s up to employers to ensure that working arrangements are flexible enough to ensure they meet the needs of menopausal women — they may need more breaks, or to leave suddenly. And so bosses should make sure they don’t penalise staff who need to take more frequent toilet breaks or who just feel a bit off.

Clare, 42, works in HR and lives in London. As well as being a member of the Jude community, she said that she has seen the situation from both sides — as a perimenopausal woman, an employee and a consultant.

At one point in her career, she tried to implement a menstrual wellbeing policy in the workplace, but she was criticised by the company founder for having her “own agenda”.

“If a man were presenting that idea, he’d be praised for being insightful,” Clare said. “But because it was me, it was seen as me doing something for myself, which is just bloody ridiculous. I’ve had experiences with other founders also pushing this as not being business-critical, which is something that unfortunately happens more times than not."

Clare adds that workplaces are often “fast-paced” environments where it’s difficult to “find the space to talk about menopause, and the issues around it, in a way that you won’t be judged”.

If you’re unfortunate enough to have an unsupportive employer, then it can make life pretty miserable. The 2018 Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) Women’s Committee survey found that too often, menopause was treated negatively in the workplace (32% of respondents) or as a joke (63% of respondents).

The report found that menopause affects women in the workplace in many ways, from lack of productivity to fatigue, to severe bleeding, pain, and discomfort.

“If these symptoms were as a result of an illness or disease, more often than not measures would be put in place to support the worker to continue to contribute in the workplace,” the report said. It also found that more often than not, employees struggle in silence because menopause is seen as nothing more than a woman’s problem.

A change in attitude

Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning and more women are deciding to speak up. Earlier this month, the Countess of Wessex spoke out about the "tragic" impact menopause is having for some women in the workplace — with too many employers not understanding the debilitating effect it can have.

The Wellbeing of Women is now calling on all companies to sign their Menopause Workplace Pledge. Bupa, PwC, HarperCollins UK, Santander UK and Tesco are some of the companies who have already signed up, and earlier this month the online retailer ASOS announced that staff will be allowed to work flexibly, as well as take time off at short notice while going through the menopause.

“Businesses are all about pushing diversity at the moment,” says Clare. “But you can’t have diversity without inclusion. If you don’t include these women in the workplace, they’re going to leave.

“They have a huge amount of knowledge about their organisations, sometimes with decades of experience, but they feel that they can’t advance their careers if they’re not welcome. As a result, businesses are losing this amazing talent because the people they’re supposed to support are too embarrassed to ask for help.”

So what needs to change?

This is where the Menopause in the Workplace organisation has led the way. It has created a comprehensive, best practice toolkit with the Government Report on menopause at work authors and employment lawyers.

The informative pack covers everything from overall planning, line manager training, and colleague events to communication and engagement materials, ready-made and tailored for individual organisations.

The point is, if we all talked openly about menopause and raised awareness of just how much some of us are struggling, then we could implement workplace policies and help support each other too.

So, whether you're a boss, an employee, a woman or a man, you can help do your bit to make colleagues who are struggling feel more comfortable.

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