The failure of businesses to effectively support female employees through the menopause is currently costing the UK economy millions each year. A recent report by the Government Equalities Office estimates annual absence-related losses at around £7.3m – a striking figure.
A lack of understanding around the process means that the menopause is now having a serious impact on women’s economic participation in the UK. There are now more women over 50 in British workplaces than ever before, with one in three workers expected to sit in this category by 2020, rendering the issue more pertinent than ever. With ambitious boardroom diversity and gender pay gap deadlines to meet, employers need to take the issue seriously.
With all of this in mind, what steps can organisations take to help employees navigate the experience? What support mechanisms are most effective?
Education and open discussion
Breaking down the stigma and opening up a dialogue around the menopause is a crucial starting point. At present, a real taboo surrounds the subject, which leaves women uncomfortable raising the issue with colleagues, or requesting necessary leave or extra support from line managers. Currently, beyond pregnancy, gender-specific issues are rarely discussed in the workplace. This needs to change and education is key.
A key issue lies in the limited understanding that many employers and staff possess when it comes to the menopause. The experience is a complex one and can vary drastically from woman to woman. Symptoms can be wide-ranging: 33 are now known and listed in total, including tiredness, lack of concentration and problems regulating temperature (hot flushes). Women can experience any combination of these, and staff need to be educated about the full range of possible effects on their employees or colleagues.
Resources, education and organisation-wide training sessions will help promote awareness and the right attitude. Without this, employers risk exposing female employees to an unsupportive environment, unable to flag concerns or explain gaps in performance where they arise in direct relation to symptoms.
There are a whole range of support mechanisms employers can put in place to help women going through the menopause. Speaking to employees and finding out what would benefit each, according to individual circumstances or experience, can be useful. Feedback can then be used to create a tailored plan or set of working conditions to help employees manage the process.
Flexible working practices, including late starts and early finishes, can be hugely beneficial when it comes to scheduling medical appointments, or dealing with issues like fatigue or disturbed sleep. The option to work from home can also be helpful when experiencing more uncomfortable or potentially embarrassing symptoms. Allowing those undergoing the transition the space and flexibility they feel necessary is important.
Simple changes to office environment can also make a difference. Sensitivity when it comes to heating and air conditioning systems, allocated cool or warm areas, desk fans and access to drinking water will be hugely valued by those experiencing issues with temperature, for instance.
Coaching programmes, mentors and occupational health services, should women want to use them, are also important. A support system, or just the knowledge that is it there if needed, can make all the difference to women undergoing the menopause transition. Professionals who understand exactly what women are going through will be best placed to offer guidance and counsel.
The varied experience of women undergoing the menopause also means that flexibility is key. Organisational policy and approach may need to be determined on a case-by case basis, and employers should be ready to adapt.
The unique strengths and perspectives that female leaders bring to organisations are well-researched and documented. Without effective support systems in place for those going through the menopause, employers risk losing valuable talent at a crucial point. It is therefore well worth investing the time and resources into assisting staff through this inevitable change.
Kate Pearlman-Shaw is a partner at GatenbySanderson