The UK has nearly four million employed women aged between 45 and 55, making the menopausal age group the largest proportion of the current workforce. According to a 2021 report from 50Plus Choices Employers Taskforce, a quarter of women consider giving up work as a result of menopause symptoms, while a 2019 CIPD study found that almost a third of respondents were forced to take sick leave. Worryingly, data from the Menopause Experts Group found that suicide rates in women of menopausal age have also risen by six per cent in the last 20 years. Add to this the jump in the number of employment tribunals citing menopause-related discrimination, coupled with the risk to women’s pensions from early retirement caused by menopause symptoms, and the outlook for women in the workplace certainly looks bleak.
Why such a poor response?
Despite the damning statistics, the majority of organisations only pay lip service to the issue. A study by Aviva found that one in three people say their workplace doesn’t offer any support to those experiencing menopause symptoms and more than half would not discuss menopause with their manager: “If colleagues were to make a joke about any other protected characteristic in the workplace there would be consequences,” says Lynda Bailey, co-founder and director of Talking Menopause. The complete absence of reference to the menopause in many companies’ policies around reasonable adjustments, performance and absence management, and recruitment and retention, shows how dismissive companies are. Worse still, many symptoms are potentially embarrassing, meaning employees don’t feel comfortable citing the menopause as a reason for quitting their job.
“Historically, our mothers and grandmothers never discussed the menopause. Women were taught to put up with their symptoms and not complain,” says Dr Shirin Lakhani, a women’s intimate health specialist who is currently collaborating with MPs to raise awareness of the importance of menopause rights at work. “It’s taken so long to be addressed in the workplace, because in the past many of the more senior positions were held by men,” she adds. What’s more, while most experience the menopause between the age of 45 and 55, some can be affected much earlier, further compounding the reluctance to speak up, and with more than 30 recognised symptoms that can begin years before (in the perimenopause) and persist thereafter, woman can suffer symptoms such as memory loss and digestive issues, through to osteoarthritis, palpitations and hair loss.
“Hot flushes can be both embarrassing and distracting when occurring in the work environment, and an increased need to go to the toilet can also disrupt sleep, leaving women tired and lacking in energy. When combined, these menopausal symptoms can erode both wellbeing and confidence,” adds Dr Nicky Keay, an endocrinologist, chief medical officer at Forth and an active member of The Menopause Society.
The legal implications
From a legal perspective, developing a robust menopause policy and wellbeing support strategy will ultimately help businesses retain talented and experienced staff and avoid costly lawsuits, but statistics show that the number of employment tribunals that include references to the menopause is on the rise, more than tripling from five in 2018 to 16 in 2020: “We are receiving increasing numbers of queries regarding this issue, and although I haven’t had any claims specifically on it, it’s likely we will see more in the future,” says Maria Hoeritzauer, a partner at Crossland Employment Solicitors. “If an employee is the subject of derogatory comments about hot flushes or night sweats, even if they are not intended to be offensive, that could constitute harassment on grounds of sex, age and/or disability,” she explains.
“Compensation under the Equality Act is uncapped, meaning employees can claim for loss of earnings, loss of pensions and issue proceedings against individuals in the workplace, who could have personal liability for any compensation awarded,” adds Kate Hindmarch, head of employment law at Langleys Solicitors. “This type of case can damage an employer’s standing in terms of being a good and reasonable employer, and supporting the health and wellbeing of all employees – not just women,” she notes.
Breaking the taboo
The menopause has recently gained traction in the media thanks to frank discussions by celebrities like Davina McCall and Emma Thompson, while MP Carolyn Harris’s campaign in 2021 for women to receive free hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescriptions has also brought the subject to the fore. “There is growing recognition from employers that they need to improve their menopause support if they want to recruit and retain women who are often at the peak of their careers,” says Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. “This ties into wider changes employers are making to support a more mature workforce, given people are now working for longer.”
Indeed, there are plenty of examples of companies that are ensuring menopause-positive experiences for their employees. Timpson has offered to pay for HRT prescriptions for its 450 female staff going through the menopause, and has found the initiative has prompted more open discussions: “The most important benefit is that people feel more comfortable to talk about menopause; the fact we are paying for the HRT prescriptions is a by-product,” explains Laura Garside, menopause champion at Timpson.
“The more general shift towards conversations about diversity and inclusion is helping with much of the heavy lifting of mindset shift,” says Lesley Cooper, co-author of Dangerous Waters and founder and CEO of WorkingWell. “Leadership is taking more interest in wellbeing at an individual level, rather than through a purely team-focused lens, which makes the ‘menopause impacts’ conversation much easier to have,” she adds.
However, HR should be mindful of the approach it takes to ensure inclusivity in its policies and processes: “It is difficult to gauge statistically the number of people who experience the menopause from the non-binary, trans or intersex communities. Experiences and perceptions may also differ in relation to disability, age, race, religion, sexual orientation, or marital or civil partnership status. It is important to recognise that people’s individual experiences of the menopause may differ greatly,” points out Melanie Darlington, HR technical manager at risk management business Alcumus, which has developed its menopause strategy alongside a global programme to champion women in the organisation to meet their full potential. “We encourage people to talk about this subject with colleagues facing the same issues and learn more about how we can support our female employees and create a great work environment,” she explains.
The role of the line manager
The importance of training line managers is something companies with effective menopause policies stress is the key driver to success, as Gosia Bowling, national lead for emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, explains: “There’s a lot of mystery and misinformation about this life stage. Managers need to talk with both the women and men on their team about how they might approach accommodation strategies like flexible work schedules, options to work from home, delivering company training or work condensed hours so employees can take an extra day off for more rest and recuperation.” She believes that when menopausal transition is addressed as a relevant, work-related issue, businesses will see a positive impact on productivity, culture and the bottom line.
McCartney also highlights that HR professionals needs to be more proactive about creating or maintaining a culture where the menopause can be talked about more openly while training line managers on this issue, as they will most likely be the first port of call: “Employers shouldn’t take the view that because they’ve got a policy their work is done. They should be aiming to get to the point where the menopause is treated as a health condition and open, supportive conversations are the norm. They should also understand what simple adjustments can be made to make those experiencing menopause symptoms feel more comfortable in the workplace – and what support might also be available through occupational health and employee assistance programmes.”
Leading the way
One organisation that has made incredible leaps is law firm Browne Jacobson; its appointed menopause sponsor, legal director for risk and compliance Mandy Cooling, has created several initiatives that have led to the firm being accredited with menopause-friendly status. As well as launching a policy endorsed by colleagues with lived experience, Cooling has established a thriving community that meets quarterly and ensures that menopause support stays on the agenda all year round, while the private peer-to-peer community on the company’s social media channels helps to signpost staff and managers to resources they might need. “Three other colleagues and myself also shared our lived experience of menopause in an hour-long webinar, which was open to all, and we were pleased that some of our male colleagues joined us,” she adds.
Aster Group – a housing association that employs more than 1,450 people – has also received acclaim for its progressive approach to menopause policy development, as chief transformation officer Rachel Credidio explains: “One of the key initiatives we introduced was ‘Pause for Men’ – a series of workshops for male colleagues to help them understand the menopause, and how they can help.” The organisation also runs its ‘hot topic’ discussion group and regular sofa sessions to provide video e-learning, webinars and workshops on nutrition, exercise and HRT.
Since introducing this raft of initiatives three years ago, the proportion of Aster’s workforce who said they felt uneasy discussing the menopause has dropped from 43 per cent to just four per cent. “There is real societal stigma around the menopause, which makes talking about it at work challenging. I like to think we have a progressive culture at Aster, but even so, continuous education has played a crucial role in bringing our employees along with us in developing our menopause support offering – it still does now,” Credidio says.
Insurance firm Zurich UK has also been working to develop its menopause-friendly policy, and has hosted a menopause café and group ideation sessions, where employees and leaders have shared their experiences and suggestions: “We’ve learned our colleagues want a supportive and empathetic environment, where symptoms don’t need to be hidden and where they are given flexibility and support. This enables people to continue to thrive in their careers, without letting the menopause become a blocker,” explains Steve Collinson, head of the firm’s UK people team. “With the impending recruitment crisis, retaining valuable talent has never been more important.”
The tide does appear to be changing, and with education, awareness and discussion, the future is looking more open: “This is definitely not just a ‘hot topic’ but one that needs sustained attention, and given our changing labour market demographics, employers recognise they need to adjust from a business perspective but also a moral one,” says McCartney.
Addressing this sensitive issue is certainly not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but providing affected staff with care and support, and encouraging open conversations to identify issues will normalise menopause in the workplace and help retain the wealth of expertise and talent that women of all ages provide.
Find CIPD resources on supporting employees through the menopause at bit.ly/CIPDMenopauseGuidance
“My negative experience helped me develop our menopause policy”
Dawn Coker (pictured), founder and CEO of Access2Funding, has created a health and wellbeing policy that normalises menopause
“I was thrown into early menopause at 37 following a hysterectomy, which was challenging working in the banking sector, where colleagues had little to no understanding. I suffered with debilitating and embarrassing symptoms, including memory loss that made me feel stupid, and horrific hot flushes that caused my hair to be plastered to my head with perspiration.
“While HR is prevalent in the finance sector, knowledge and understanding of menopause and its experiences is not. Gender diversity is poor, with women making up just 20 per cent of major financial services executive committees. All my direct line managers were men, who didn’t understand why sometimes I needed to sit by a window for fresh air or have a fan on my desk. It was almost a joke to them. No one wanted to talk about menopause, so I put on a brave face. In 2014, I joined the housing sector and finally felt able to open up. I partnered with the HR team and helped to roll out support to staff, especially for female health issues.
“I launched our menopause policy in June last year, motivated by my own negative experiences. We are a growing business with a predominantly female management team that I want to retain, and whose needs I want to recognise in the way mine were not. I also want to increase understanding of menopause in the workplace for male managers and ensure they are trained to support female staff, as well as women in their personal lives, too. The menopause policy encourages colleagues to openly and comfortably instigate conversations about the menopause. No one should feel too embarrassed to talk about a natural transition, so the policy encourages employees to inform their line manager at an early stage if they are experiencing menopausal symptoms, so it can be treated as an ongoing health issue, rather than individual instances of ill-health.
“It was received with great enthusiasm, especially as most employees are female, but I was also contacted directly by two men in the business to applaud the policy and training as it provided them with a greater understanding of how menopause was affecting their wives.”