Talking about this life stage and educating all staff will benefit your organisation and those experiencing symptoms

We all know someone who has been through, will experience or is currently going through it – but what do you really know about the menopause, and how it affects the person experiencing it?

Reproductive health is still a taboo subject in the workplace, yet the effects of the menopause can adversely affect performance. In fact, 59% of working women aged between 45 and 55 who are experiencing menopausal symptoms say it has a negative impact on them at work, according to a recent study by the CIPD.

And, with women aged 50+ becoming the fastest-growing group in the UK workforce (there were 3.8 million women over 50 in work in 2015), it’s something employers cannot ignore.

Here, we’ll outline what the menopause is, common symptoms likely to affect workers, and how employers can give better support to staff during this time.

 

What is the menopause?

It’s when the menstrual cycle stops because the ovaries are no longer producing eggs. You have reached the menopause if you haven’t had a period for 12 months.

There are three stages:

  • Perimenopause (from when you first experience symptoms until you reach menopause – we’re including this stage when talking about menopause here)
  • Menopause (12 months after your last period)
  • Postmenopause (any time after that)

This natural process usually happens to women between the ages of 45 and 55 as oestrogen levels in the body decline. Although the average age that women reach menopause in the UK is 51, it can happen at any point once menstruation cycles start. The Daisy Network says early menopause is when it begins before the age of 45 and, if it occurs before 40, is known as premature ovarian insufficiency (POI). About 5% of the UK population is affected by spontaneous (natural) menopause before 45.

The menopause can also be brought on by medical procedures, some breast cancer treatments, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Underlying health conditions may also prompt it to begin.

 

What are the symptoms, and how long do they last?

An early sign of the menopause’s onset is irregular periods – they’re either more or less frequent, and may have a lighter or heavier flow than normal. This will usually begin in your 40s, but can be earlier.

About eight out of 10 will have additional symptoms before and after their periods stop; these can be more severe if menopause is brought on by surgery or medical treatment. Some common symptoms that may affect workplace performance include:

  • Hot flushes (or hot flashes) and night sweats
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood changes
  • Problems with memory and/or concentration
  • Urinary problems (such as recurring urinary tract infections, incontinence and needing to go to the loo more frequently)

Less common effects (among others) include dizziness, anxiety, depression, palpitations, weight gain, joint ache and hair loss.

You can have symptoms for just a few months, or several years before periods stop. They will continue into postmenopause for, on average, four years after your last period – although this can be longer.

The range and severity of symptoms will differ from person to person: some may be largely unaffected, while others experience debilitating effects for years. A 2014 study by Nuffield Health found 10% of women consider giving up work because of their symptoms.

 

What support can we offer employees experiencing menopause symptoms?

There are three things you can do: talk, educate, and offer reasonable adjustments to those with symptoms.

First, stop making menopause talk taboo – this, says People Management magazine, is making people uncomfortable about raising the issue, or even requesting leave or support from managers.

The CIPD’s 2019 study found 30% of women surveyed had taken leave because of their symptoms, but only a quarter had disclosed the real reason why – either because of privacy, embarrassment or an unsupportive manager. They felt they got more support from colleagues than managers, too.

So what can employers do? Start by checking out resources such as the CIPD’s guide to managing the menopause at work, which includes information for HR teams and managers to help provide better support. There are also printable resources that can help prompt conversations in the workplace (and educate about what the menopause involves).

Setting up support groups are a great way of sharing menopause knowledge between colleagues. Some organisations, such as the Velindre University NHS Trust in Wales, have Menopause Café sessions where staff can learn about each others’ experiences.

“These sessions are a safe space to have a discussion forum about the menopause,” says Karen Wright, assistant director of workforce at the Trust. “It’s also a way to educate men about the menopause, about how it can impact home and work life, and enable them to better support their partners and colleagues.”

Organisations such as Menopause in the Workplace can help with training for employees and managers, plus HR and occupational health teams. It’s director, Deborah Garlick, says that it’s the menopause’s psychological symptoms that impact employees the most: “Women are saying they were not aware they could be affected in this way, and didn’t know what to do about it.

“When they understand menopausal symptoms and what they can do to manage them, it’s empowering,” she adds. “We have so much feedback from women saying that they’ve got their lives back, and are feeling back at their best.”

A 2003 TUC study found jobs could be making menopause symptoms worse, so you should allow for practical changes for affected employees to help them fulfil their potential. Menopause is covered under the 2010 Equality Act, so make sure your organisation can offer reasonable adjustments to those experiencing symptoms – there have already been a number of legal cases in this area.

The Society of Occupational Medicine suggests:

  • Reviewing workplace temperature and ventilation. Offer desk fans, plus the chance to relocate near an opening window and/or away from a heat source
  • Ensuing access to cold drinking water
  • Having convenient washroom and changing facilities
  • Allowing uniform flexibility, eg thermally comfortable fabrics, optional layers and other items
  • Providing rest areas and spaces to walk around on breaks, and a quiet room to assist management of more severe symptoms

Flexible working should also be offered, giving those with menopause symptoms the chance to remain in work rather than feeling that they can no longer continue in their role. Giving people the option to spend more time working from home, reducing travel, working different (or fewer) hours, reducing responsibility levels, and being understanding if they need to leave suddenly will make a big difference.

Overall, the most important action to take is to open up spaces for conversations, so those who have menopause symptoms – no matter their age or situation – are confident speaking with managers, HR professionals or occupational health teams about it. Providing everyone in your organisation with the education, policies and options to make living through this stage easier will benefit you and your employees.