While the menopause is no longer the taboo subject it was only a decade or so ago, awareness of what it is, symptoms and side effects, is still low. Even amongst perimenopausal and menopausal women. Women are still expected to ‘just get on with it’ and unlike other health and wellbeing issues, the menopause and its impact on the workforce and in the workplace is rarely the subject of discussion around the boardroom table.
We’re seeing a trend with our Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), run by employers in large public sector organisations and SMEs, which suggests that the menopause really should be on the agenda.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are around 4.4 million women aged 40-64 within the workplace. Menopausal women are the fastest growing workplace demographic: nearly 8 out of 10 menopausal women are in work according to a report from the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM).
Increasing numbers of women in these demographics accessing EAPs are reporting symptoms such as anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, physical issues and feelings of not coping. While some symptoms are indicators of other mental or physical health problems, many are experienced by perimenopausal or menopausal women.
What is the menopause and perimenopause?
Between the ages of 45 and 55 a woman’s oestrogen levels decline and she eventually stops having periods. Symptoms are typically experienced over a period of years, so the menopause is best described as a ‘transition’ rather than a one off event. Some women may experience changes to their hormones as early as their late 20s, while others may not start until their late 40s.
Research shows that the average menopause age is 51 but that 1 in 100 women experience this before they are 40.
The Royal College of Nursing highlights the following key symptoms which can be experienced in varying degrees by women going through the menopause:
- Psychological – loss of confidence, reduced concentration, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, palpitations
- Hot flushes and night sweats which can lead to sleep disturbance and tiredness
- Muscle and joint pain or stiffness
- Irregular periods – heavy or lighter than normal and increases in urinary tract infections and cystitis
- Headaches and memory loss
- Weight gain and changes to skin condition
- Reduction in sex drive
As the range of symptoms and age presentation is wide, and as awareness is still low, it’s not surprising that many women reporting these issues have not associated their symptoms with the menopause. No wonder that this subject is still not widely discussed in the workplace.
Menopause and work: why it’s so important
When you look at your organisation no doubt many female employees either currently fall into the age range for the perimenopause or menopause, or will in the near future. Research has found that 6 in 10 menopausal women say their symptoms have had a negative impact on their work, with 3 in 4 women experiencing symptoms and 1 in 4 of those being serious. Research from the CIPD also suggests that 50% of women are likely to find it difficult to cope with work during the menopause.
Many of these women, because of their age, are also at the peak of their career holding senior positions or are highly skilled and invaluable to the organisation. Symptoms such as poor concentration, tiredness, poor memory, feeling low or depressed and hot flushes can all have a detrimental impact on performance in the workplace.
A study of 896 women in UK organisations into the menopause and work, led by Professor Amanda Griffiths at the University of Nottingham (2010), reported that hot flushes in particular were described as a major cause of discomfort and embarrassment for women. The majority of those surveyed revealed that they were unwilling to disclose menopause-related health issues to their line managers, most of whom were men or younger than them.
This is a challenge as employers have a duty of care as the menopause is covered by the Equality Act 2010. Whilst not considered to be a disability in itself, menopause symptoms can give rise to a section 6 Equality Act disability if the symptoms have a long-term and substantial adverse effect on normal day to day activities. However, if women are not willing to discuss menopausal health issues with their employer, this presents a problem for the employer.
What can you do?
Amanda Smith, clinical director for Vivup’s EAP, suggests that the first step is to ensure the menopause is specifically addressed in workplace wellbeing policies. When it’s written down in policy and guidance it becomes easier to publicise and promote more open conversations about the menopause.
Training for managers and employees to help them understand what the menopause is and how it may effect employees is also vital. This is not a subject just for older women, it should be normalised so that all line managers regardless of gender or age can speak about the menopause with no embarrassment, stigma or insensitivity.
In Amanda’s experience, many women do not consider that their symptoms are related to the menopause and therefore it’s vital that line managers are given the training and resources they need to broach the subject with sensitivity. EAP providers train line managers in mental health awareness so that they can spot the signs and symptoms and be able to have conversations with their team members, it’s the same for menopause.
Regular 1-2-1s with staff are also important. The ability to listen and provide staff with a safe space to talk about their mental and physical health has a positive impact in the workplace, ensuring that staff receive the support they need, whatever they’re going through.
Finally, that support needs to be in place and easily accessible. Alongside Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) where staff can access resources or speak to a counsellor and get professional help, employers should also think about other ways they provide support. Creative solutions such as offering flexible working to help women cope with disturbed sleep and fatigue, or moving a desk closer to better ventilation, can make a difference.
Psychologically, the employer’s willingness to support staff who are going through the menopause is also empowering. Symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks and loss of confidence can be amplified when someone is trying to cope by themselves. Knowing that your employer understands that your concentration, mood and other psychological factors are not an indication of poor attitude or unsuitability to your role, removes some of the stress of feeling that you’re not performing at your best.
Perimenopausal and menopausal women make up a significant workplace demographic. So, ensuring they get the support they need is an important part of retaining talent and skills, as well as minimising the impacts of health and wellbeing issues on productivity and other performance related metrics.