Menopause: Breaking the last workplace taboo
Menopause When the Government’s official Business Champion for older workers, the formidable pension rights campaigner Ros Altmann, rattled her sabre on behalf of women of a certain age last year, millions of us raised a cheer.
At last, someone in a position of influence had recognised the huge inequality in how we are treated in the workplace at the beginning of our reproductive lives compared to the end. For the first time, menopause was on the Westminster agenda as an occupational health issue that demanded attention.
It is, after all, as natural as pregnancy, and its physical, financial and emotional impact on female staff – and their employers – can be just as challenging. More so, perhaps, since the ‘rules of engagement’ around menopause are so sensitive.
“Most line managers, particularly those who are male, would have little idea how to handle such conversations,” Altmann observed in her report, pointing out that “currently, there is no training for line managers to deal with this issue, which will affect around half the UK workforce at some point in their later lives”.
Altmann wasn’t the first to identify that embarrassment and ignorance were at the heart of the problem.
The TUC, which has worked hard to change the culture of avoidance when it comes to employers addressing what’s still too often seen as a ‘personal matter’, had established what the barriers were to tackling the issue as far back as 2003. But since the Altmann report, the Chief Medical Officer, the British Association for Women in Policing and, most recently, the Royal College of Nursing, which published a report this month, have all made recommendations to employers.
And they’re not rocket science.
Kathryn Colas, a company director, who set up an information and advice service for women after suffering her own ’10 years of hell’ with the menopause, was inspired by Altmann’s report to start the first workbased training programme, launched this year.
She believes embarrassment and ignorance, inflexibly designed workplaces and policies, such as rigid rules on opening windows and toilet breaks, can all be addressed. But, in her view, more women in senior positions are needed to drive significant change and there is still too little information out there for businesses that want to.
“According to our research, 72 per cent of women feel unsupported at work and half are too embarrassed to even talk about the menopause to their boss.
Menopause really is the ‘last workplace taboo’,” said Kathryn. “There are sympathetic male bosses, of course, but in my experience, women leaders are more likely to appreciate the damage that can be done to an organisation if they don’t have training and policies in place to help women through the menopause – including loss of productivity and sometimes even loss of staff.
“It [menopause] can be debilitating for a woman in terms of the erosion of confidence and self esteem as well as the physical symptoms."
Raised body heat, for example, can make uniforms and workplaces particularly uncomfortable, while unpredictable periods makes the need for toilet breaks more frequent.
“There is also a case to be made for more flexible working hours to cope with sometimes hugely disturbed sleep patterns, which affect memory and concentration. It’s also about having discreet but accessible access to support and advice, including knowing you can have a straightforward conversation with your boss or HR department.
“Women don’t necessarily want to shout the fact that they’re going through the menopause, but it helps to know key personnel are aware that you’re coping with this big physical change in your life, rather than having the stress of keeping it a secret and trying to carry on as normal. Sometimes, you just can’t and that should be no more of an issue for your employer than if you were a pregnant woman coping with morning sickness or back ache.”
Her advice to employers echoes that of the TUC, which recommends they ensure all line managers have been trained to be aware of how the menopause can affect work and what adjustments may be necessary to support women. It even encourages them to feature the menopause in occupational health campaigns to all staff – in effect, normalising the menopause.
"And yet there is still a fear of discrimination around the M word, even in a predominantly female workforce."
A National Union of Teachers’ survey revealed 80 per cent of respondents didn’t wish to disclose they were having issues around the menopause either because of embarrassment or, more worryingly, though fear that they might be targeted by management for redundancy.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” says Kathryn Colas. “But things are improving. I address a lot of conferences and I’ve noticed an increasing willingness among women to talk about the issues publicly. At the end of the session, though, it’s often men who come up to chat to me privately. They still feel uncomfortable. At least they are there, though, and willing to listen and discuss it with us.”
Find out more
Kathryn Colas will be talking about menopause in the workplace and how women can help cope with symptoms at a one-day conference on January 21, 2017, at Stanhill Court Hotel, near Gatwick. Go to simplyhormones.com to find out more.