While there have been efforts over recent years to promote gender equality and to tackle mental health issues in the workplace, the taboo surrounding menopause is still prevalent. Davina McCall’s recent Channel 4 documentary, Sex, Myths and the Menopause, highlighted some of the deep-rooted issues around menopause and the staggering lack of knowledge medical professionals have on the topic. With this in mind, it is essential that employers break the silence on the subject and engage with employees to ensure they are sensitively supported.
Menopause typically affects those aged between 45 and 55. Recent studies show that the 50-60 age bracket of those in employment is the fastest growing age group, in part a result of the trend towards an ageing population.
The impacts of menopause can be severe, with the symptoms negatively impacting an individual’s performance and attendance at work. Studies have shown that nine in 10 women feel menopause affects their work. Potential loss of confidence, mood disturbances, anxiety or depression (to name a few potential effects) can destroy workplace relationships and even force employees to resign out of desperation.
Unfortunately, many people suffer in silence and do not disclose their symptoms to colleagues or reporting lines. Many employees feel it is inappropriate to share with their employer the difficulties they may be going through.
Davina McCall has revealed how she felt pressure not to talk openly about going through the menopause, as she was told it could damage her work opportunities. Beyond the fact that it largely remains a taboo subject, some may not even know that their symptoms are as a result of menopause. This is arguably a reflection of poor information and knowledge surrounding the process.
Menopause is not in itself a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. However, employment tribunal case law demonstrates how an employer's treatment of staff undergoing menopause can potentially give rise to discrimination at work. Employers must treat symptoms of menopause equally to other medical conditions, as well as consider how it can lead to a disability, which in turn can impact on an employee’s performance and conduct.
It is therefore important to be proactive and have appropriate support frameworks in place to not only assist employees’ wellbeing, but reduce business risks. In addition, demonstrating an understanding of the impact that menopause has on employees indicates the employer places the wellbeing of their staff highly. Messages such as this ensure staff feel recognised, which can lead to greater loyalty and in turn staff turnover may drop, sickness absences can be properly managed, performance will improve and risks will reduce.
Companies need to create an open, inclusive and supportive culture to tackle the stigma. The first step is to engage with employees. It may be appropriate to first ascertain from staff whether they feel they have enough information and support. It is also necessary to review and update existing policies and support structures. You may have existing policies that cover health in the workplace, but do they specify menopause and how employees can speak up about issues? You could even consider having a bespoke menopause policy.
Does your organisation have a wellbeing team? Could you incorporate the issues of menopause into wider workplace training? Are managers up to speed on how to handle such sensitive issues? Have you considered reasonable adjustments that may assist, for example, flexible working arrangements, adapting uniforms or providing fans? There are many steps that will assist, but the key is to break the silence and begin to foster an open culture.
Rhona Darbyshire is partner and head of the employment team at Cripps Pemberton Greenish