Last week we welcomed Lyndsay Harrison from Workplace Menopause Support to deliver a lunch-and-learn session across the business, to give us all a better understanding of menopause and how we can support our colleagues, friends, and family.
There are currently over 4.3 million women aged between 45-60 employed in the UK and, apparently, we are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Most of these women will go through the menopause transition at some point during their working lives, and there will be many others who will experience menopause at a much earlier age (e,g as a result of surgery or other medical intervention, and sometimes naturally). It’s important, therefore, for everyone to understand better why menopause matters, and appreciate how small but sensitive adjustments in the workplace could help support women.
Menopause used to be one of those ‘taboo’ topics, not to be discussed, and it amazes me still that many women and girls – let alone men – remain poorly-informed about how the changes may affect their bodies, their minds, and their daily lives in general. It’s somewhat surprising that fewer still know about ‘perimenopause’: the months or years of oestrogen-decline, period irregularity, and bodily changes which occur before menopause is finally reached (when there has been no menstrual period for 12 consecutive months). Menopausal symptoms can last throughout perimenopause, and beyond menopause itself, so the effects for some women can be experienced for years. Many women choose to take HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to ease the symptoms of menopause, but there are associated risks and many choose not to; also, some women are unable to take HRT for other medical reasons.
So, why is menopause a workplace issue?
For some women, the menopause will have little bearing on their daily lives but, for others, symptoms may have a very real impact on work performance. Difficulty in sleeping can affect concentration and productivity. Hot flushes or heavy periods can cause distress and embarrassment. Psychological effects cannot be underestimated, and they can detrimentally impact workplace relationships. For some women, the severity of symptoms may be so extreme they feel forced to give up work altogether. The most commonly reported difficulties menopausal women experience at work include poor concentration, tiredness, poor memory, feeling low or depressed, and having low confidence.
Thinking about this in tandem with my opening statistic regarding this growing demographic in the workplace, it’s clear that more openness, education and understanding is needed, so that employers can comfortably engage with their female workforce and offer support wherever practicably possible. We can’t afford to lose the talent and experience offered by these women, and making small adjustments to better support them could reap huge benefits – not only in individual employee wellbeing and productivity but also, ultimately, in the company’s overall efficiency and success.
Perhaps the most important primary consideration is raising awareness, so that the stigma is removed – for everyone. Recent years have – thankfully – seen an increasing trend to normalise discourse on menstruation for younger women and girls in schools and workplaces; we now need to raise the profile for education on menopause, and with that bring an end to the taboo. Talking sensitively with employees can encourage openness and will help to identify the support needed.
Personally, I’m glad menopause is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. I had little preparation as I was hurtled straight into menopause six months ago following surgery and, subsequently, strict direction from my doctor that I was not eligible to take HRT. I braced myself for the hot flushes (which started almost immediately), and I remember calling my colleagues to say – half-jokingly – that I wouldn’t set foot back in the workplace unless there was a desk fan installed prior to my return! Since then, I’ve equipped myself with every sort of portable fan available, and I find I can cope well enough in the office or out on client sites. What I wasn’t prepared for was the dreadful insomnia and the physical exhaustion; but I’m gradually working out ways to improve my sleep health (including the inevitable late-night purchases online – I can report that weighted blankets are pretty good, but warm!) Most importantly, I have an empathetic employer, and sympathetic colleagues. I know I can work flexibly if I need to, and I am happy to talk openly if I feel I want to. I don’t presume such understanding is commonplace, though, and I would urge employers to do what they can to inform themselves and their staff, and to help wherever possible.