Menopause Misunderstanding Generates Unnecessary Absence Costs
According to a new study by the Government Equalities Office, the menopause is costing the economy millions every year, because employers don’t understand it.
The report warns that unlike pregnancy or maternity, menopause is not well understood or provided for, putting women at risk of ridicule and gendered ageism. This is encouraging female employees in their early 50s to call in sick for fear of experiencing symptoms in front of colleagues or managers. Generating an annual cost to the economy of £7.3 million.
Despite women already being protected against workplace discrimination by laws which take account of the menopause, “on the basis of either their sex or age,” another study, commissioned for ITV’s Tonight programme, found that two thirds of women going through the menopause have no support in place at work. Causing one in four of them to consider quitting because of their experiences.
With data released by the Department of Work and Pensions showing that nearly two thirds of women (64.2%) aged 50 to 64 are now in work, this is no longer an issue that employers can afford to ignore.
So here are our top-five tips on practical things employers can do to change attitudes towards and support employees going through the menopause.
Five ways to help employees cope with menopause
1. Make it less taboo
A century ago the menopause wasn’t an issue. Most women were expected to die before they reached their 43rd birthday. Today females are expected to live to 83 years of age, making the menopause, which occurs age 51 on average in the UK, a fact of every woman’s life.
It’s something that anyone who doesn’t die prematurely will go through, and which two-thirds of women will experience whilst in employment.
Given the extent to which the menopause – defined as the cessation of menstruation – now directly affects half the population and indirectly effects anyone else with a mother, wife, sister or close female friend, it’s amazing it isn’t more widely spoken about.
One of the main reasons for this is that we live in a society that places a disproportionately high value on youth and beauty. At a time when other cultures welcome the menopause and revere it as a time when a woman comes into her wisdom and power, giving her access to jobs that she couldn’t have undertaken during her childbearing years, our society views the hormonal changes that render a woman infertile as a negative, almost abhorrent thing.
This is, in great part, due to the almost Darwinism attraction we have towards women who are fertile - as indicated by their youthful skin, slender figures, long hair and vitality.
A woman going through the menopause becomes acutely aware of this bias, so even if she never wanted children, or is happy with the family she has, entering into the menopause can be a deeply distressing experience for many women who find they don’t like the way the lack of estrogen ages them and makes them feel less attractive and important in the eyes of society.
As a result, instead of admitting when she’s having an uncomfortably hot flush at work and telling colleagues she needs to step outside for a minute, or asking if she can flex her hours to come into work a bit later to help her deal with sleeping issues brought on by hormonal changes, most women feel like they have to hide the fact that they’ve reached this stage of their life. A situation not helped by witnessing slightly older menopausal women being teased and ridiculed.
As with breaking any other taboo, the first step towards destigmatising the menopause is to first talk about it in a way that normalises, instead of demonises it. Educational workshops to prepare women for what is to come and make their colleagues more empathetic, are important. As is updating the dignity at work policy to encourage a zero-tolerance attitude towards anyone found teasing, taunting or attempting to humiliate a menopausal employee.
2. Update your OH guidelines
Despite measures as simple as allowing staff affected by altered sleep patterns to flex their hours or those affected by hot flushes to wear cotton uniforms, instead of synthetic clothing, which can make a huge difference, many organisations have yet to put in place Occupational Health guidelines when it comes to the menopause.
At the request of the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davis, the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) has now produced guidelines on menopause and the workplace.
This highlights how 30-60% of women will experience intermittent physical and/or emotional symptoms during the menopause, brought about by the decrease in the body’s production of the hormone oestrogen. Physical symptoms can include hot flushes, night sweats and related symptoms such as sleep disruption, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Psychological symptoms can include mood disturbances, anxiety and depression.
75% of menopausal women complain of hot flushes, or night sweats, with 25% saying they adversely affect their perceived quality of personal and working lives. These hot flushes are short, sudden feelings of heat, usually in the face, neck and chest, which can make the skin red and sweaty. With severe flushes causing sweat to soak through clothing.
In my experience of supporting and educating women to cope with the menopause, hot flushes are such a source of concern that most women report feeling mortified by the thought of a hot flush and the loss of control they experience over their body when this happens.
In reality, it usually feels a lot worse to experience a hot flush than it looks. A flush that a woman might feel is humiliating her in a meeting, will typically go barely noticed by everyone else in the room. So, as the FOM guidelines highlight, regular, informal conversations between the employee and their manager or an HR or OH contact are important. Such conversations should include acknowledging that this is a normal stage of life, encouraging them to talk to their GP about HRT options that might be available to them and identifying adjustments that can be easily made, such as providing them with a fan, moving their desk nearer to an open window or otherwise increasing ventilation and access to temperature control. As well as allowing them to excuse themselves from meetings for a moment if they feel they need to do this.
It can also be useful to install a shower in the office, not just for use by people cycling to work, but also menopausal women, and access to cold water coolers.
For those in customer-focused or public-facing roles, having a colleague on standby to step in for a moment can be helpful. As can providing access to a quiet room for a short rest or nap or to manage a severe hot flush.
Menopausal symptoms typically last between 4 and 8 years and their consequences may combine to have substantial adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities, potentially meeting the legal definition of a disability under the Equality Act, making it even more important to support those affected as part of a broader commitment to employing and supporting a diverse workforce.
3. Make it part of a wellbeing initiative
It’s not just women that are affected by the menopause. Someone married to or living with someone adversely affected can also become affected, especially if it starts to put a strain on the relationship.
By running education programmes and workshops to raise awareness of the menopause and its affects, you can not only help and support your older female employees, but also give your male employees the insights they need to understand and support both female colleagues and their partners at home.
Workshops can look at the stigma surrounding the menopause, why it’s something more and more working women can expect to experience during their working life, practical information on the symptoms and ways to reduce these. For example, dietary advice about the importance of the adrenal glands for producing oestrogen and the need to increase intake of naturally oestrogen-rich food products, such as soya, flaxseed and sardines and reduce intake of caffeine and nicotine for combating hot flushes.
By educating employees about the simple facts of the menopause, what it is, how long it lasts, how it can affect employees, you can not only give them the practical insights and information needed to support themselves and/or their loved ones, but also start to break down the stigma associated with talking about this to open up communication and encourage employees to better support each other.
4. Provide emotional support
As well as potentially physically challenging experience, the menopause can also be an emotional rollercoaster. It typically coincides with other big life events, such as children flying the nest and downsizing your house.
Freed from the responsibility of raising children, or the risk of an unwanted pregnancy, the menopause isn’t just an ending. It’s also a beginning. If, for example, her relationship has, for many years, been focused on parenting and the role of raising children, the woman and her partner now have the opportunity to see if they can get to know each other and get back to having fun again. To do this successfully, the relationship has to go through an adjustment, which the employee may need support with if it is to survive the next stage.
Similarly, if the employee isn’t finding their partner or colleagues as supportive as they might be, doesn’t know how to talk about their symptoms or is struggling to come to terms with the loss of their fertility, perhaps due to early menopause, or concerned about lack of control over their symptoms, they might benefit enormously from confidential access to therapeutic support, such as being encouraged to talk to their GP, a relevant charity helpline, or a professional counsellor or menopause specialist with the employee assistance programme (EAP). Managers should also be encouraged to use the EAP to get expert advice and insights on how they can better support and open up communication with employees affected.
Creating a peer support group can also be of enormous benefit to employees going through the menopause at the same time. By proving anyone effected, whether directly or indirectly through a family member, with the opportunity to get together once a month to talk about their experiences, you can provide them with opportunities to support and listen to one another, in a way that’s been proven to be hugely beneficial on both an emotional and practical level.
5. Boost resilience
With high profile celebrities, ranging from Carol Vorderman to Kirsty Wark, breaking the silence about menopause by talking about just how challenging they found not just the symptoms, but also the stigma, more and more women are becoming aware of the need to strengthen their ability to cope in advance.
At Validium we have developed our own model for wellbeing based around building energy in six resilience batteries.
Our workshops help women to understand the symptoms of the menopause and things they can do to support themselves. Including a review of their current wellbeing habits. Followed by expert advice on how they can create a personalised resilience programme that will boost their energy levels and keep their reserves strong so they can better support themselves.
Six ‘resilience energy batteries’ that can help with the menopause:
1. Social – are you enjoying quality face-to-face social interaction with others?
2. Emotional – what gives you a sense of achievement or brings you joy?
3. Physical – are you nurturing your body by eating well and sleeping enough?
4. Mental – Do you have a growth mindset in the face of challenges?
5. Mindful – Can you set aside time and worries to mindfully enjoy the moment?
6. Meaning – Have you identified what personal values are important for you?
If you would like the opportunity to talk about your menopause support strategy and Occupational Health solutions, please call us on 01494 685253