The conversation around menopause is changing in the workplace as it dawns on businesses that proper strategies need to be in place if they are not to be deprived of vital talent at senior levels, argues Tania Hemming
If businesses are to promote female leaders and create gender-balanced boards, they need to crack the menopause problem. Female attrition at the top has a direct link to the serious problems women and their bosses face when menopause disrupts a senior professional’s life and work.
The recent Menopause and the Workplace report from the Fawcett Society, commissioned by Channel 4 and heralded as the largest ever study of the life impacts of menopause, polled 4,000 women between the ages of 45 and 55 and found that one in 10 had left their job because they struggled with menopause symptoms in the workplace.
In real terms this accounts for some 333,000 women across the UK leaving the workplace. (These statistics don’t include non-binary, trans and younger people who can all be affected by menopause.) Symptoms can be severe, yet an astonishing 80% said their employers provided no support, not even at the most basic level – no information sharing or support networks and no sickness policies directly addressing the issue.
Moreover the report findings underline what we all know anecdotally, that there is a massive and potentially career-damaging stigma that surrounds menopause: 41% described their symptoms being treated as a joke by bosses and colleagues, leading them to put “anxiety” or “depression” on their sick notes rather than own up to menopause.
On World Menopause Day (18 October) we can at least celebrate that the narrative around menopause is starting to change. It’s a big topic of conversation right now in business, and particularly HR circles, and best-practice employers are beginning to make attempts to normalise conversations around it in the workplace. Although women’s experience may still lag considerably behind the PR, at least the “talk” is improving: employers are now openly encouraged to take the issue seriously, understand the link with senior female attrition and think deeply about workplace adjustments that could make the difference. The difficult bit is turning this “talk” into “walk”.
There is hope: last year the government (the Women and Equalities Select Committee) launched an inquiry into menopause in the workplace, consulting experts on whether additional protections were needed in law to protect menopausal women from discrimination. Currently, menopause discrimination claims can only be brought under the umbrella of sex, age and/or disability discrimination. In its report this September, the inquiry concluded that the government should consider creating a new stand-alone protected characteristic of menopause under discrimination law.
So for employers proud of their best-practice status, how should they approach supporting menopausal women in the business? How can they work with them to make the workplace a comfortable place for them, to retain this senior talent longer?
The first step, as with any new business challenge, is to fully understand its nature and how it manifests. Surveys repeatedly show that people generally only associate five or six symptoms as menopausal – hot flashes, night sweats, poor sleep, weight gain and mood swings being the most quoted. However the NHS recognises as many as 40, including brain fog, the inability to multi-task, loss of confidence (compounding the issue of imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women in the workplace) and depression (which can be severe – studies have shown direct links between menopause and suicidal thoughts).
The cost of living crisis is another factor – one survey suggests it is making symptoms of menopause worse.
Once the issues are properly identified, employers should encourage conversation about menopause and offer support networks. They should draft in experts to provide training and education for all managers, those in menopause and the workforce as a whole.
These initiatives will send a clear signal to everyone in the business that menopause, and supporting the professionals affected, is taken seriously at the very top of the organisation. Also that everyone in the business is expected to work together on the best ways to support menopausal staff and colleagues.
However an additional key component is to offer one-to-one menopause support coaching for the women affected. This type of personal support comprises taking a holistic view, understanding individual women’s needs and desires as they navigate this particularly difficult life and body transition and creating a personal support programme considering all aspects of their lifestyle. The key is to look at all aspects of a woman’s life that may be having an impact on their experience of menopause, including factors from nutrition and movement, to hormone therapy and GP support, to mindful practices and more.
An important point that is given much less focus in the current discussion about menopause in the workplace, is that there is actually potential for this life transition to be a truly positive experience in a senior professional’s life and career. Handled well, menopause can be a “second spring” in a woman’s life. In Chinese medicine the possibility for a reawakening is described. With the right support from bosses, colleagues and personal coaching, it has the potential to be a very positive time of life. Now if senior women were to see their workplace actively facilitating such a positive outcome as they transition through menopause, maybe we’d see senior women retention rates spike at this stage in their careers instead.