Dealing with menopause at work is a huge challenge for many women. And politicians know it. But too often, flexible working is the default answer.
In April 2021, leading up to mayoral elections in June, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced ambitions for ‘world leading’ menopause policies in the capital. Back in 2019 at the Labour Party Conference, Dawn Butler, Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, announced that, if elected, Labour would offer flexibility for menopausal women in the workforce. For me – a 30-something with no knowledge about the menopause – I thought it sounded like a great idea.
I’ve been watching women demand, and need, flexibility in order to survive and thrive my whole life. Surely this was just more of the same? It’s certainly not the first time that I or well-intended party policies have been very wrong because someone didn’t bother to do their homework.
I thought the menopause was mostly hot flushes, and women carrying fans in their handbags all year round. “I feel like I’m having a hot flush,” women would joke in the office. This was the sum total of my understanding of what the menopause at work might be like.
In an email from Dr Louise Newson, a GP and menopause specialist, her summary of what women need to deal with menopause at work is fairly unequivocal. “These women need help, not time off,” she writes. In other words, flexible working isn’t the quick fix it might seem to be.
When we speak, Dr Newson elaborates on what she feels is the most effective support for menopause at work. “Yes, having time off is good,” she says. “But actually, as most women can have HRT, it is even better for them to have their hormones balanced. They need to be given the right education and support. They also need the right combination of diet, exercise and wellbeing advice. With that, they can not only stay at work but they can probably do a far better job.”
“These women need help, not time off work,” says Dr Louise Newson
Dr Newson knows from personal experience that balancing hormones is the key to managing menopause not just at work but in all areas of our lives.
“Personally, if I hadn’t managed my menopause, I would not have been working because my brain was gone,” she says. “My memory was poor, my concentration was poor, my motivation was reduced. So even if I’d had flexible working, I would have stayed at home and stared at the four walls. Yet when menopause is managed probably, women thrive at work.”
Education is the key
Diane Danzebrink is a menopause expert and wellbeing consultant. She started the #MakeMenopauseMatter campaign, including a petition which nearly 90,000 people have signed. It demands better training for GPs, better information in workplaces and education on the menopause being put on the school curriculum.
“I regularly go into workplaces to deliver education sessions on menopause at work,” she says. “The questions at the end are generally about treatment options, not how women can change their hours.
“The underlying issue here is a lack of education for the general public and health professionals. This results in women and their employers often not recognising what is happening to them . They don’t know what they can do to help themselves.”
The cost of menopause at work
This lack of awareness is having serious ramifications for women in the workplace. Dr Newson surveyed 1132 women to research the issue. Over 90% of respondents said their menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms were having a negative impact on their work. Over half said that colleagues had noted a deterioration in their performance. As a result, 9% had to go through a disciplinary procedure.
When they did seek help, things were not much better. For 37% of women, a sickness certificate was provided by their doctors. Of that group of women, 52% had stated anxiety/stress as the cause, with only 7% stating menopause as the reason.
This is confirmed by another survey, this time by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. Their research showed that 59% of women with perimenopause symptoms faced challenges at work. But only a quarter of those whose symptoms had caused them to take sick leave, felt they could tell their manager the real reason for their absence.
Research from Nuffield Health group has also found that women are confused around HRT. They are mistakenly denied treatment and one-third had not been made aware of the treatment by their GP.
The workplace measures that work
So what can companies do? Jill Ross, Accenture’s managing director for retail in the UK and Ireland organised Accenture’s first ever event on World Menopause Day (October 18) this year. (Full disclosure, the event was in partnership with MPowered Women.)
“I’m in my mid 40s and very aware of the next life stage I’m about to enter,” says Ross. “Women are working for longer and we have more senior women than ever in the workplace. I thought, how do we start breaking the taboo?”
90% of survey respondents said their menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms were having a negative impact on their work
Thanks to Ross, Accenture faced the issue head on and created “a supportive and informative space for women”. She was delighted that some men attended the talk. Another great result was that “a couple of women who attended then went back to their GP to discover what they thought had been anxiety around a new promotion had in fact been menopausal symptoms.”
Dr Newson says it is not unusual for line managers to attend similar menopausal awareness sessions, only to come out and realise that they too have been experiencing symptoms.
Accenture isn’t alone. Tesco and Channel 4 have begun education and awareness initiatives. The business incentive is an obvious one; instead of covering the cost of flexible working as Labour have proposed, invest in educating staff to understand symptoms and seek the right treatment. This way the workforce remains productive, surely the shared goal of everyone.
Menopause is a #metoo issue
The lack of education around the menopause and how to treat it is perhaps not that surprising. The taboo around talking about women’s bodies and how they function is a stubborn one – just think of current work to destigmatise periods or the problems of women not having smear tests. I wonder, therefore, how much menopause falls in the not-so-sweet spot of sexism. Is it part of a culturally ingrained disgust or shame around women’s bodies, and ageism?
Instead of covering the cost of flexible working as Labour have proposed, invest in educating staff to understand symptoms and seek the right treatment.
If a menopause signifies the end of a woman’s fertility, is there an antiquated societal hangover that these women are no longer of concern? The menopause embodies all of those prejudices and discriminations. Is it any great surprise, therefore, that medical professionals aren’t as informed as they should be?
Ross says awareness around the menopause is the natural next step in the current conversations in diversity and inclusion. In a #MeToo age, politicians, journalists, business and the wider public are endlessly talking about women at work and redrawing the dynamics what that can, and should, look like. Historically, women have had to hide issues that impact them in the workplace; child care, caring responsibilities, sexual harassment, unequal pay. The menopause is so well hidden that women themselves don’t see it.
As a now better informed 30-something, I only wish these conversations could begin earlier, not just when women are in the grips of what they think is a career-changing anxiety crisis. In this #metoo era, we still have a lot more talking to do.
If you haven’t signed Diane Danzebrink’s #makemenopausematter petition, what are you waiting for? Sign it today and let’s beat this taboo once and for all.