A substantial proportion of the UK workforce is made up of women over the age of 50. Statistics show that women in this age bracket are participating in the workplace in ever-increasing numbers.
It is therefore inevitable that female workers will experience both physical and psychological menopausal or peri-menopausal symptoms at some point in their working life and yet research on the subject is scarce and very few employers have policies in place to support both staff and managers in the workplace during this transitional period.
So why aren’t we taking the menopause seriously?
Government-commissioned research “The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK” suggests that women tend to use various coping strategies and may not seek support and disclose issues to their employer.
Often women frame the menopause as “a personal problem rather than something which can be made more difficult by workplace conditions and others’ behaviour”.
Reasons for non disclosure may include fear of appearing “impaired” because of “prevailing stereotypes about mid-life women” and fears about confidentiality or disclosing issues to a younger or male manager.
Some evidence also exists to suggest that women can be “ridiculed, harassed and criticised by colleagues and managers as a result of their menopausal symptoms – or just because they are aged 40 or over and therefore stereotyped as “hysterical”, “histrionic” or “menopausal-ish”.
For some women it is a personal issue that they wish to keep just that.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms can range from hot flushes, sleeplessness and headaches to fluctuations in weight. There can be knock-on psychological effects, such as anxiety and depression, all of which can affect performance, relationships at work, attendance, confidence and even loss of memory. It can cause some women to leave work altogether.
If any employee was suffering with any of these symptoms in the workplace for any other reason, most employers would look to offer support. Employees may also be less reluctant to discuss their symptoms.
When it comes to the menopause in the workplace, it exists and yet is seemingly invisible.
What is the legal position?
Women already have some legal protection in the workplace and there have been successful employment tribunal claims. As awareness and employment in this age bracket increases further claims may well ensue.
There is protection against sex discrimination but there may be also protection against age and disability discrimination (especially where the symptoms are so severe they have a substantial or long-term adverse effect on day-to-day activities). There may also be follow-on claims of victimisation if the employer does not take complaints seriously and the complainant suffers some form of detriment for raising issues.
What can employers do?
Some measures that can support women are simple such as the employee’s ability to control temperature within the workplace, the flexibility to adjust dress codes or considering flexible working even if on a temporary basis.
Specific policies can be introduced or specific provisions made in associated policies such as flexible working, equality, diversity, capability and absence policies. Employers could include the subject in their equality and diversity training. Some employers can go further in creating support networks and providing access to occupational health or specialist support and advice.
The research suggests that whilst we have made huge strides in educating employers as to the needs of women who return from maternity leave, little has been done to support women in the workplace who are experiencing the menopause or their managers who could support them.