When 46-year-old sales rep Selena* had her only remaining ovary removed for medical reasons, she didn’t think much about the premature menopause she was told it would induce. But when she returned to work just a few days after surgery – for fear of “letting the team down” – the problems began in earnest.
“I just found working difficult,” she says. “The summer was boiling and the small office was so hot, but no provision was made and my colleagues made jibes like ‘is it your age?’ or ‘are you having a hot flush?’”
Selena felt reluctant to tell her manager, not only because he was in his early twenties but because she didn’t want to seem a burden or have her capability to carry out her job questioned.
“I couldn’t focus for brain fog, I didn’t feel myself. I didn’t appreciate before it started what effect it would have on me and my work. Eventually, my symptoms were so severe my quality of life was horrendous.”
Most women typically experience the menopause – when the menstrual cycle naturally stops as oestrogen levels decline – between 45 and 55. Symptoms are both psychological and physical, including mood changes, sleep disturbance and hot flushes.
When she was made redundant, Selena blamed her impaired performance. “I thought, ‘Can I even do this job?’ I’d been in sales my whole adult life but had completely lost my confidence,” she says.
“I can’t entirely blame the company because I didn’t appreciate what I needed. So how could I communicate that? It’s key we realise women themselves don’t have enough information.”
The CIPD is calling time on such eminently avoidable experiences, and encouraging a more open discussion around the menopause. Its new People Professional’s Guide to the Menopause at Work highlights how outdated the stigma surrounding this natural process is and aims to equip employers with the knowledge and tools to tackle it.
Claire McCartney, one of the policy advisors behind the guide, says many organisations are not focusing on an important issue. “As gender equality and the gender pay gap are increasingly being discussed, the menopause is not. But it is part of a broader equality issue. The new guidance is about understanding and supporting female employees so they can thrive in the workplace.”
It’s not only a women’s issue. According to the CIPD, there are very good reasons why employers should treat the menopause as an important organisational issue. There are now around 4.4 million women over 50 in work and the vast majority of these will go through the menopause during their working lives.
An age and gender inclusive company culture needs to be alive to such considerations. As the CIPD report puts it: “The level of support that women receive at this stage of their working life can be pivotal in facilitating their continued economic participation. The menopause is an important gender and age equality issue, and should be part of an organisation’s approach to developing inclusive workplaces that support women’s progression.”
Last year, a BBC survey revealed that the majority (70 per cent) of women did not tell their bosses about their symptoms. Nearly half of the 1,000 people surveyed said the menopause had affected their mental health, while a quarter said it made them want to stay at home.
In a 2017 interview, actor Gillian Anderson described the effect on her ability to work and cope with everyday life: “I felt like my life was falling apart around me. All of a sudden I felt like I could handle nothing. How wonderful would it be if we could get to a place where we are able to have these conversations openly and without shame,” she said.
McCartney adds: “For many, it is a long-term fluctuating health condition which requires the same support as any other long-term health condition.”
Research has previously found that by taking the menopause seriously, organisations can help mitigate the potentially negative impact of symptoms on the individual and the business, such as reduced job satisfaction and commitment, higher sickness absence and an increased desire to leave work altogether. To accommodate a diverse range of experiences, the CIPD is advocating a ‘cafeteria’ approach, which enables employees to choose aspects of the policy that work for them.
“It’s about making reasonable adjustments, looking at absence management and ensuring line managers are knowledgeable about their organisation’s framework,” McCartney says. “They need to ask:
‘Is there a flexible working arrangement that could work? Are our facilities up to scratch?’ It’s so much more than just a legal duty.”
Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne, founder of sanitary product subscription service Freda, says the conversation about the menopause at work is long overdue. “In my experience, once [the issue] gets highlighted, those who hadn’t paused to think all of a sudden say ‘I can’t believe this is happening,” she says. “Change happens when people pause and think. And this can be actions as small as putting up information in the ladies’ bathrooms.”
“When an employer makes the necessary changes, whatever they may be, it is a nod to the existence of women and their needs in the workforce,” Parvizi-Wayne says. “For a generation who may feel ashamed or embarrassed about such a private thing, creating an inclusive environment is fundamental. Don’t accept the status quo. We have to start changing. Say the word out loud in your workplace and get it out there.”
* name has been changed