Time for change: exploring menopause in the workplace
The stigma stops here. Is your workplace doing enough to become menopause friendly? Our expert columnist Claudine Thornhill investigates…
Does your workplace have a menopause policy yet? If not, one may be on its way to a workplace near you. In July 2022, the government policy paper, Menopause and the Workplace: How to enable fulfilling working lives, suggested that businesses have open conversations about the menopause in the workplace to help break down the taboo and normalise the issue. The paper also discussed the Equality Act 2010, which protects employees against discrimination at work. As a result, many employers have started to look at how they can make their workplaces more menopause-friendly.
Not many would have dreamed of a time when women’s health and work would be mentioned in the same sentence, let alone at a policy level. Periods, reproductive health issues, and menopause, have long been taboo, only to be discussed with close friends and family, and hardly ever in the workplace. But with just over 4.4 million women aged 45–60 in employment in the UK at the end of 2021, the average age of menopause being 51, and considering that symptoms of menopause can affect mental and physical health, it’s no wonder that government ministers issued a review of menopause and employment.
When we think of menopause, the typical images that come to mind are often red-faced women, glistening with sweat, desperately fanning themselves. We think of irritability, emotional rollercoasters, and mental fogginess. Actually, each person’s experience of menopause is completely unique to them.
Firstly, there are three stages of menopause; perimenopause, where progesterone levels begin to decline. Periods may become irregular and cravings, weight gain, fatigue, and irritability may increase. People may also experience night sweats. Emotionally, we may be less tolerant of stress.
The second stage, menopause, officially happens when your periods have stopped completely for 12 months. Oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone decline at this stage. Symptoms might include loss of muscle mass as a result of testosterone decline, a build-up of fat mass due to oestrogen loss, hot flushes, reduced libido, lower mood, fatigue, vaginal dryness, and mental fogginess.
The final stage, post-menopause, is what follows. During this stage, symptoms may persist for up to five years, and gradually reduce in intensity. It’s important to reiterate that every person’s experience is different; some women breeze through menopause, fanning themselves as they go, while others have symptoms that may seem unrelenting.
So, how does menopause affect employment? According to the British Menopausal Society, women have cited poor concentration and memory, tiredness, low mood, depression, and reduced confidence as affecting their work. Hot flushes at work have even been linked to women wanting to resign from their roles.
When it comes to employment law, although there isn’t protection against discrimination on the basis of menopause, the Equality Act 2010 does offer protection against discrimination on the basis of age, gender, gender reassignment, and disability. This means that a workplace practice that causes someone to be discriminated against, or treated less favourably because of menopausal symptoms, may have an argument for discrimination on this basis.
Employers also need to consider their duty of care to all employees. A work environment or practice that compromises someone’s health, including making menopausal symptoms worse, can become a health and safety issue under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
The good news is that employers are taking note of these factors. While most strive to be fair employers, who provide great career experiences and inclusive environments, all will be mindful of the financial and reputational risk that comes from discrimination claims. To address this, employers are looking at implementing menopause policies to ensure that perimenopausal, menopausal, and post-menopausal people are supported at work. Menopause training has also been discussed to help normalise the subject and increase awareness.
People don’t have to be perimenopausal or menopausal to get a head start on managing their symptoms, either. Hormonal balance is key, and taking steps to support that balance can start at any age. Prioritising sleep and rest, stress management techniques, physical activity (including some weight-bearing exercise), and limiting exposure to toxins like plastics, can be helpful. Plus a diet that includes healthy fats from mackerel, walnuts, flax and chia seeds, reducing alcohol and processed sugar, and upping cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, and antioxidants like blueberries and dark chocolate, can all go some way to providing a bit of relief.
Whether it’s at work, rest, or play, happy, harmonious, and balanced hormones make for a much easier journey through all stages of life.