Making menopause manageable

20th Jul 2020

Mandy Laurie offers some observations on supporting employees through this natural (but not yet normalised) process

Woman floating

Research commissioned by specialist retailer Health & Her has revealed that 14 million working days are lost annually due to symptoms of the menopause, with 370,000 women reporting that they have considered resigning their position because it is too hard to manage their symptoms in the workplace.

Recognising that there is a real business imperative when it comes to retaining women within the age category most likely to experience menopause symptoms (40 to 50), Burness Paull hosted a series of roundtable discussions exploring how best to tackle the problem.

The results were fascinating. Several key themes emerged:

  • Raising awareness among all staff of the potential symptoms and effects of the menopause was considered the most effective way to support women and normalise discussion of the menopause in the workplace;
  • There was a preference for raising menopause awareness and support as part of a wider wellbeing initiative, rather than as a specific diversity and/or inclusion initiative; and
  • General workplace policies, such as agile and flexible working, could greatly assist menopausal women without singling them out.

Other insights were also uncovered, which could help any organisation looking to devise a strategy for supporting women through the menopause in their work environment.

Agreement on awareness

The menopause will have a different effect on every woman. Often a woman will not know that she is going through the menopause (or the perimenopause transitional phase beforehand) because the symptoms are misdiagnosed or they experience few symptoms.

With this mind, several examples were provided where an HR team’s knowledge of the menopause (due to its members being female and of a certain age) had helped employees identify that the menopause was the cause of their symptoms. However, there were differing views on whether HR was the best place for an awareness of menopause symptoms to reside. Some felt that this should not be an HR-specific role, as it was important that all staff felt able to identify colleagues in need of support and discuss the menopause. Others felt that employees may feel more able to confide in HR because of the sensitive nature of the conversation.

All participants did agree that there was an indisputable business need to raise awareness of the menopause. But this raises another question: how do you bring the matter out into the open?

It was acknowledged that many line managers would welcome the opportunity to learn more in order to support their staff, get the best out of their team and be the first to spot women in need of support. Managers should be equipped to handle the initial conversation and make it meaningful. However, it was also recognised that women will often not want to be singled out as going through the menopause. For this reason, strategies such as dedicated “menopause mentors” were greeted with reluctance. Businesses also often have various roles such as mental health first aiders and equality champions, which could be called upon here to help.

Overall, participants agreed that raising awareness for all was the best way to help staff recognise, understand and support women going through the perimenopause or the menopause. As part of this, organisations may wish to consider compulsory training for management and HR, as well as including information regarding menopause in newsletters or displaying information at coffee points. Ultimately, it’s essential to create an inclusive culture in which women experiencing the difficult symptoms that arise from the menopause are recognised and supported without stigma.

Is this about inclusion?

There was a lively debate around whether the matter should be considered as part of an employer’s health and wellbeing provision or within its diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. Some participants felt that D&I was the necessary and appropriate framework in which menopause discussions should take place. Others felt that making it a gender-specific issue was a major turn-off, not only for those women it affects but also for their colleagues and line managers.

Raising awareness as part of D&I work may also lead to stigma or result in a focus on what a woman is not able to do, rather than on what she can offer during what is just one phase of her working life.

Participants also discussed the fact that the age range in which most women experience the perimenopause – between the ages of 40 and 50 – is also a time when men are more likely to suffer from serious mental health issues. So men too are more likely to leave an organisation during that period due to a lack of support or understanding.

As a result, a more holistic approach to supporting the health and wellbeing of both sexes could be very beneficial. For example, employers could offer anyone over the age of 40 a general “health MOT”. While this would clearly cost an employer, it is perhaps a genuine benefit to workers that could save a business money. More importantly, it could improve workers’ health and wellbeing and avoid absences.

The role of professionals

As noted earlier, the menopause can be difficult to diagnose and women are often misdiagnosed as suffering from, for example, depression when presenting with menopause-related symptoms. Participants felt that this was an area in which occupational health specialists could be more fully trained, offering a service to employers to train and support their workforces. Employers might also offer employee assistance programmes and should ensure that any such service is also able to recognise and understand the menopause and its symptoms.

The right medical input can be crucial for employers if an employee is absent from work or struggling with their performance. However, it was recognised that a referral to occupational health, particularly at a certain age and stage of life, may be seen by the employee as ominous and be met with resistance. Therefore, the general preference remained a more proactive but invested approach to the health and wellbeing of individuals at this stage of their life, across both sexes.

The participants noted that there is a wealth of information and guidance available for employers on menopause policies and adjustments that could be carried out. However, most of the guidance was felt to be quite generic and often not practical in terms of the approach that should be taken when assessing whether an individual is going through the menopause, or when considering how discussions should take place. A number of guidance documents contained stereotypical pictures, such as a woman with a fan on her desk and jokey references. Businesses should be careful to avoid this kind of humiliating content.

Support and adaptation

Supporting staff going through the menopause will not always result in a legal obligation to make workplace adjustments, but best-practice employers should consider whether there are any adaptations they can make. For example, a general policy of agile working – providing added flexibility in terms of hours and location of work – could assist greatly. However, agile working is not possible for all organisations. So how does an employer ensure that such workers are catered for? 

Individuals may feel that during this period they would like a temporary career change, perhaps remaining in the organisation but changing role for a limited period. Some may feel that a career break would benefit them. Employers able to accommodate such changes may avoid having to address absences or performance issues through a formal process. To avoid discrimination claims and attract and retain the best staff, such options would ideally be available to all workers.

Legal considerations

Since there are additional legal obligations around the earlier stage of a woman’s life – such as protection against redundancy during pregnancy – should there be any additional protection afforded to women during the menopause stage? On the whole, participants felt that there was probably enough legal protection available for women going through the menopause.

For example, the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 that cover sex and disability can protect women who have suffered unfavourable treatment based on their menopause symptoms. Employees may also be able to file unfair dismissal claims if they are dismissed due to their menopause symptoms.

Workers are also protected against harassment relating to symptoms of the menopause. If this kind of mistreatment seems unlikely, remember that we have already witnessed a Deputy Governor of the Bank of England refer to the economy as “menopausal”, with the inference that it is slow, sluggish and old.

The legal obligation to carry out a risk assessment under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 also applies where an employee is menopausal. Risk assessments are something that could benefit employees and could also assist an employer in defending against claims that they have failed to make a reasonable adjustment. In the public sector, in addition to the general duties under the Equality Act 2010, there are also additional obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty, which can help to promote and protect menopausal women. We are only just beginning to see claims at the Employment Tribunal relating to the menopause, but as awareness of its impact in the workplace grows, it is likely that more claims will arise.

If a woman is struggling with her work performance or attendance as a result of menopause symptoms, this should be addressed as usual, consulting with the individual and potentially seeking an occupational health referral. Informal early consultation may be sufficient to avoid the need for a formal process.

Where a worker’s symptoms affect their performance or attendance at work, and they are not taking any of the recommended steps in relation to self-care or therapy, what should be done? Would an employer be able to dismiss fairly on the grounds of capability if the worker did nothing to help themselves? It would certainly be a very sensitive and perilous case due to the risk of a discrimination claim, unless it could be shown that the worker was clearly rejecting useful medical or therapeutic help  for no good reason, or had shown no improvement over a prolonged period of time and their symptoms were adversely affecting the business.

Support is supported

Ultimately, at all of the roundtables, it was clear that there is a real desire to support menopausal women in the workforce. The benefits to a business of doing so should be tangible. Not only will such measures mitigate against legal claims and potentially help to close the gender pay gap, but they should also help to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and support the engagement and retention of a richly talented intergenerational workforce.

Key steps to creating a menopause-friendly workplace:

  • Consider the best framework to use to raise awareness within your organisation, ideally within your health and wellbeing agenda.
  • Raise awareness among all staff of the menopause, its symptoms and its effects.
  • Seek to normalise discussions regarding the menopause in the workplace by ensuring that there is an open-door culture and demonstrating management-level commitment to understanding and supporting menopausal women.
  • Consider adaptions that could be made to working arrangements and the work environment to support women going through the menopause, regardless of whether or not there is a legal obligation to make those adjustments. For example, can flexible and agile working policies be introduced or used to better effect?
  • Work with an occupational health professional and other health providers to ensure that they are sufficiently equipped to recognise and support women going through the menopause.
  • Create guidance and provide training in conducting health and safety risk assessments for menopausal women.
  • Manage the menopause in the same way you would approach any other sensitive health issue. Address the matter with the employee promptly and in a supportive manner, seeking medical input where required.
Mandy Laurie is Head of Employment at Burness Paull