With nearly two-thirds of women aged 50 to 64 now in work, the menopause will affect most of them during their working life. So it’s concerning that a new report by the Government Equalities Office has criticised employers for a lack of understanding and support.
The report warns that menopausal employees feel at risk of ridicule and gendered ageism, causing some female employees in their early 50s to call in sick for fear of experiencing symptoms at work. The report estimates that this is costing the economy £7.3m a year in absence-related costs. A separate study, commissioned for ITV’s Tonight programme, found that one in four menopausal women had considered quitting work due to their experiences.
Despite women already being protected against workplace discrimination by laws which take account of the menopause, my own experience of supporting and educating women to cope with the menopause is that the workplace fails to comprehend the extent of the impact it has on the quarter of women whose symptoms are categorised as ‘severe’. These women can have debilitating hot flushes and insomnia, and feel that they are no longer able to function in a cognitive capacity.
When Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark talked about just coping with her own sudden and unexpected ‘medical menopause’ at the age of 47, she found the apparent silence surrounding the menopause nearly as difficult as the obvious physical battle. “It’s not so long ago that the hormonal changes that came with menopause were regarded as madness – the madwomen in the attic,” said Wark, in recent BBC1 documentary The Menopause and Me. “Mythology has a lot to answer for.” And while things have changed over time, the subject is still not readily discussed.
In reality, the hot flushes suffered to varying degrees by 75 per cent of menopausal women feel much worse than they look. What a woman might experience as a humiliating hot flush will typically go unnoticed by anyone else. Even so, it’s concerning that women are worried to show the symptoms of something half the population will go through. Is a hot flush really any worse than blowing a snotty nose or streaming with hay fever?
As with breaking any other taboo, the first step towards destigmatising the menopause is to first talk about it in a way that normalises it. By providing all employees with factual education about the physical and emotional symptoms, you can prepare female employees for what is to come and increase the ability of everyone else to support colleagues at work and family members at home.
Managers should also be equipped to talk to menopausal employees about workplace adjustments that can easily be made, such as allowing those affected by altered sleep patterns to flex their hours or those affected by hot flushes to have a desk fan, sit near a window, or wear cotton, rather than synthetic, uniforms.
On an emotional level, those struggling to cope with the menopause should be encouraged to talk to someone via their employee assistance programme (EAP) or to a GP, for therapeutic support and extra information about how hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and dietary changes can help reduce symptoms. Dignity at work policies should be reviewed to encourage a zero-tolerance attitude towards anyone found teasing, taunting or otherwise attempting to humiliate a menopausal employee.
Only then will the worst affected women feel able to ask for help and support, instead of continuing to suffer in silence.
Karen Matovu is head of mental health training at Validium