NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard released the first national guidance on menopause this week, and called on other employers to “break the stigma” and follow in its footsteps.
The guidance encourages line managers and employees to adopt practices such as “normalising asking for help”. It also aims to introduce practical measures such as flexible working, lighter duties, fans to reduce temperatures, cooler uniforms and staff training.
Pritchard said individuals with menopausal symptoms should not have to “turn their back on their career” and that leaders had a responsibility to “ensure this doesn’t happen any longer”.
But will the new guidelines be enough to address the issues affecting menopausal employees? People Management asked legal, HR and menopause experts.
Will a menopause policy be enough?
It’s always great to see employers stepping up and taking the menopause seriously – especially an organisation of the size, scale and importance of the NHS, says Heather Jackson, co-founder of GenM. But she adds that businesses shouldn’t rest on their laurels after implementing a policy: “It is important for employers to play their part in supporting those in menopause, but we can’t expect a menopause policy at work to instantly fix an issue that has been largely ignored for centuries.
“To have the biggest impact on improving the menopause experience, we need to normalise the conversation and transform the way menopause is seen in society – both inside and out of the workplace.”
Jemima OIchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, also welcomes the policy and echoes Pritchard’s sentiments that menopause has been shrouded in stigma for “too long”. She says menopausal people should be treated with the “dignity and support they deserve”, and not be expected to “just get on with it”.
She goes one step further and calls on the government to “now make the urgent changes” that are needed, “from requiring employers to have menopause action plans, to creating a route into menopause healthcare and ensuring that GPs are adequately trained to spot menopause symptoms”. OIchawski adds that menopausal people experiencing “unnecessary misery [is] a national scandal”.
Meanwhile, Emma Clark, employment partner at Keystone Law, says that, historically, menopausal employees have had to leave their jobs or reduce their hours, which has had a negative impact on their careers. She asks whether policies “such as those being proposed” will be implemented by businesses across the UK.
“Voluntary menopause policies should be considered – this could include the definitions of menopause and the symptoms, focusing on how managers can assist and suggesting different websites that may prove helpful,” says Clark.
She adds that the menopause could be incorporated into an employer’s existing policies.
“This could entail adapting equal opportunities, flexible working and sickness absence policies,” she advises, but also warns that overhauling policies is not enough, as “management needs to ensure the messages are followed through and training the workforce can be a very helpful way of addressing this issue”.
EDI policy pitfalls to consider
While all respondents welcomed the NHS guidance on menopause, which has been referred to as a taboo subject in the workplace previously, they also raise questions and concerns about some of its recommendations.
Indeed, Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, says that while the impact of the NHS guidelines could be “exponential” if applied to other workplaces, it will be a long time before all women are on an equal footing, and calls for regulatory change: “The imperative for regulatory change will grow as the subject of menstruation and menopause becomes less taboo, which requires an attitudinal shift in society.” But he says the initiative from NHS England is an important step.
However, Jackson feels that “sensational” headlines announcing that menopausal employees will work from home could give the wrong impression, and “unintentionally have the effect of alienating people in this position”.
“Sensational [news] titles announcing that menopausal employees are all to work from home can give the wrong impression that those in menopause are demanding special treatment or unfair advantages,” says Jackson. She adds that “a lot” of conversations around menopause focus on “extreme cases” and “it’s important to recognise that the vast majority have a milder experience”.
Meanwhile, Clare-Louise Knox, business psychologist and founder at See Her Thrive, says flexible working is already something that everyone is legally entitled to, so presenting this as a special entitlement for the menopause “did not make sense”.
“The danger of doing that [giving flexible working as a menopause benefit] is singling out a group of people in the workforce, which could have unintended consequences,” Knox explains. She adds that it would also bring up questions of how it left people with other health-related issues, such as endometriosis and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
Knox also says that having cooler uniforms may also have the effect of singling out employees, if such a uniform had a different appearance: “For people who want to be discreet, that is not helpful at all… people may be reluctant to wear the uniforms as they will be labelled as menopausal.”
Ultimately, Knox warns that the guidance – which she says is a step in the right direction – does not include everyone who may benefit, and businesses wishing to implement it should be as inclusive as possible. “Not everyone wil go through a natural menopause, and there are a significant number of people who will go through menopause as a result of things like cancer treatment, or surgery or for medical reasons, as well as those who experience it as a result of premature ovarian sufficiency,” says Knox.
“That diversity within menopause should be refelcted in any menopause guidance, and not including this group of people would exclude their experiences and fail to accommodate their needs.”