By Jo Moseley
In the space of a few years, menopause has gone from being regarded as a taboo subject to part of our national conversation. Many organisations are starting to recognise that they need to support peri-menopausal and menopausal women in order to retain their skills and expertise, but don’t always know where to start.
The menopause occurs 12 months after a woman’s periods have stopped. The years leading up to that point (when women may have changes in their monthly cycles and experience other symptoms) are referred to as the ‘menopausal transition’ or ‘perimenopause’. During this transition, the body’s production of oestrogen and progesterone begins to decline. That process can occur at any age, but usually between 45 and 55. Ethnicity and genetics can influence the timing, length, and symptoms that women experience.
Oestrogen affects the body, including bones, brain, heart, ovaries, skin, and organs, in many ways. Symptoms of the menopause and perimenopause can therefore be varied. Women report, for example, fatigue and disrupted sleep, poor memory, difficulty in concentrating (menopausal fog), joint and muscle pains (menopausal arthralgia), hair and skin changes and migraines, as well as the more commonly reported hot flushes and night sweats. When oestrogen levels drop, the level of serotonin in the brain also falls. As serotonin promotes feelings of wellbeing and happiness, women may also struggle with increased irritability, anxiety, and low mood.
Symptoms often have an impact on all aspects of a woman’s life and can significantly affect her physical and psychological wellbeing. They can lead to absence, decline in performance, and cause women to leave roles in which they once thrived.
The workplace context
Women make up 47% of the workforce and outnumber men in many areas of the labour market. That’s particularly relevant to the care sector where women make up around 84% of the workforce. The majority of women affected by menopause are the fastest growing economically active group in the UK. Around 70% of working women in the UK (that’s almost 4.4 million) are aged between 50 and 64.
Data is emerging which demonstrates the detrimental impact the menopause can have on women’s ability to work effectively. Channel 4 commissioned the largest survey of peri-menopausal and menopausal women in the UK which indicated that:
- 70% suffered from brain fog, 52% lost confidence and 61% lost concentration
- 84% said that their employers didn't offer any support
- 79% said their employers didn't have a menopause network
Around 1 in 10 women leave their jobs because of their menopausal symptoms. The care sector is already struggling to fill vacancies and can’t afford to lose the skills and experience of its existing staff.
There has been an increase in the numbers of women bringing claims in the employment tribunal linked to their menopause and we expect that trend to continue to reflect greater awareness.
The menopause is not specifically protected under the Equality Act 2010 and most complaints are characterised as a form of disability, sex or occasionally age discrimination. Some women have also brought unfair dismissal claims linked to their employer’s failure to consider the impact of menopausal symptoms before dismissing them for poor attendance, misconduct, or poor performance.
Most reported claims rely on disability discrimination. To succeed with such a claim, a woman must show that her symptoms have a substantial and long-term impact on her ability to do normal day-to-day activities. Substantial means more than trivial and long-term means 12 months or more. Normal day-to-day activities can include work-related activities such as keeping to a timetable or shift pattern and being able to concentrate. A number of cases have concluded that menopausal symptoms meet this test and trigger the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Potential changes in the law
Last year, the Women and Equalities Committee conducted a call for evidence to look at the extent to which menopausal women experience discrimination at work, and to consider how government policy and workplace practices can support them. Its report is not yet available. However, we know that one of the options under consideration is recommending that the menopause should be a standalone protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, in the same way that pregnancy and maternity is.
If that happens, it will be a game changer and employers will have to make sure that their workforce understands what the menopause is and how it can affect women at work, via training, education, policies, and guidance.
If you want to help women in your workplace we recommend that you:
1. Develop a strategy. It's helpful to appoint menopause 'champions' who can open up discussions, develop suitable policies and support women.
2. Signpost where your staff can find reliable information about the menopause and HRT.
3. Consider what changes you can make to support menopausal women. Many organisational changes are free and relatively easy to implement. For example, workplace characteristics that make symptoms worse include: high temperatures, poor ventilation, humidity, no access to quiet or restful spaces, noise, dryness in the atmosphere and a lack of natural light. Think about how you can overcome these by, for example, providing breakout areas that offer quiet places to work in open plan offices, cold water stations and desk fans. You may also need to provide additional uniforms so that women can change them more regularly.
4. Support flexible working. Allowing women to make changes to their usual working pattern, including when or where they work is particularly helpful.
5. Train your managers so they understand the basics and can make appropriate decisions, and encourage women to speak up where their work is being impacted.
6. Accept that all women experience menopause differently. If you take the time to understand how the menopause is affecting individual employees (rather than assuming that everyone needs the same thing) you'll stand a much better chance of retaining the experience, knowledge and support your organisation needs.
Irwin Mitchell has a free guide and menopause policy which you can download here.
This article first appeared in Care Markets.