Menopause affects half of all workers – so why don’t we talk about it?

Women going through the menopause are entitled to the same workplace adjustments as anyone dealing with a physical or mental health issue, says Emily Andrews

There are currently 4.4 million women aged 50-64 in the workplace in the UK. That’s up from 3.3 million just 10 years ago, an increase of a third.

The ageing of the workforce is to a large extent a female phenomenon. The number of men aged 50-64 is overall greater at 4.8 million, but represents a smaller increase of just 20 per cent over the same time period.

That means employers will increasingly need to take into account the needs of older women in their workforce. But when was the last time you heard anyone talk about the menopause at work – other than in hushed tones (or worse, with a mocking giggle)?

A recent report by Health & Her found that 370,000 women had left work, or were considering leaving, because they were struggling to deal with the symptoms of the menopause in the workplace. And last year, as part of research on managing health conditions in the workplace, the Centre for Ageing Better found that talking about the menopause at work can be a problem for women.

As part of our research, we spoke to older workers about the problems they faced in managing health conditions at work. Many of them told us they simply weren’t supported by colleagues, including managers, making it difficult for them to get the support they needed.

We need to support people who are experiencing the menopause while in work

This needn’t be the norm. There are things every employer can do to better support women who are affected by the menopause in the workplace. 

First, this is in part an issue of workplace adjustments – the kind that anyone dealing with physical or mental health issues or disabilities is entitled to.

The Centre for Ageing Better’s guide to becoming an age-friendly employer lays out what employers should do to support people with health conditions, many of which apply to the menopause. Open and sustained conversations between employers and employees about what support is needed is a key part of this. The symptoms of menopause are varied, and differ among women. But the adjustments do not have to be large; for example, making desk fans available could make a big difference to some women’s comfort and ability to function.

Second, we need to reset workplace culture. In a 2011 survey of women experiencing menopause, one in five (20 per cent) said it had a negative impact on their manager’s perception of their competence at work. And as our research shows, sadly there are still workplaces where women are not supported by their colleagues.

As well as creating a hostile environment for the women, this toxic combination of sexism and ageism puts employers at risk under the 2010 Equality Act. Tackling an ageist and sexist culture needs not only needs clear signals from the top of organisations that such behaviour will not be tolerated, but also proper training for line managers.

Business in the Community has created a toolkit for employers, containing a range of different things that they can do to support staff through the menopause – including recording menopause-related sickness absence as an ongoing health issue. 

Women are already at greater risk of financial insecurity in old age than men: they are more likely to work part-time and take breaks from employment, so build up smaller pensions pots. Women’s retirement income is currently, on average, £42 per week lower than men.

We cannot afford for these women to be prematurely forced out of the workplace.

By the time women reach the menopause, most are well practiced at balancing the demands of the workplace with the demands of their bodies. Supporting them to manage their health needs at this stage of their lives will only reap benefits to both employers and employees. 

Emily Andrews is senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better

For help and guidance in supporting employees experiencing the menopause, visit the CIPD's Let's Talk Menopause knowledge hub