In this instalment of our series on older workers, Lisa Vigurs, Executive Director, looks at menopause, drawing on first-hand accounts of menopause in the workplace from a survey we carried out within our network. Lisa's role includes responsibly for managing BIE’s internal HR function, onboarding new employees and looking after the wellbeing of her BIE colleagues. Having gone through the menopause early, at the age of 38, she is committed to encouraging the support of those experiencing the menopause at work.
Menopause is a normal stage of life for people who menstruate; oestrogen levels decline with age and periods ultimately cease. It is not a one-off event, but a gradual process that can take place over several years.
Each person’s experience is different, and can pose unique challenges. Typically, menopause begins between the ages of 45 and 55, with 51 being the average age in the UK, but around 1 in 100 experience it early, before the age of 40.
Symptoms can be challenging to manage. They can be physical and psychological – ranging from hot flashes and joint pain, to sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating and depression – and can vary in severity and frequency. A quarter of menopausal people will experience severe symptoms that greatly impact their daily life.
Menopausal women are reported to be the fastest growing workforce demographic and yet many workplaces are failing in their duty of care towards them. “Unlike pregnancy or maternity, the menopause is not well understood or provided for in workplace cultures, policies and training,” according to the 2017 findings of the Government Equalities Office. In fact, only 24% of workplaces surveyed by the CIPD in 2021 provided menopause support: it’s an increase from 9% in 2019, but there’s more work to be done.
Unless workplaces take action, they risk losing a significant number of their employees. Research reveals that almost a million women have left their jobs due to menopause symptoms, with others having to take long-term absences to manage them.
In support of its older workers, childcare company Koru Kids recently commissioned a poll of 2,000 women experiencing menopause symptoms UK-wide. The women asserted that menopause had the “second most devasting impact on their career to date, only just behind having children.”
Almost a fifth of the women surveyed had considered leaving employment, with the following cited as the most common reasons:
Further compounding the issue, almost three quarters of respondents felt like they couldn’t talk about what they were going through with their colleagues, and seven in 10 women had to take time off to manage their symptoms but felt unable to tell their employer why.
“It’s something we need to be able to talk more about as a company,” said one of our interviewees. “Everyone here will either go through menopause or know someone who goes through it, so support and guidance is and should be welcomed.”
There is a move to make menopause a protected characteristic, which would further protect those going through it, and clarify the duties and responsibilities of their employers. Currently, menopause is covered by the Equalities Act 2010, and the number of employment tribunals involving menopause has tripled in three years.
In addition to helping avoid potential legal issues and costs, providing support will reduce recruitment costs and the cost of absences, as well as boosting employee retention and loyalty.
Creating an environment that’s conducive to open communication is a great place to start. All the interviewees we spoke with stressed increased awareness, open conversation and more information as the kind of help they’d like to receive from their companies. “There should be organisational acknowledgment of menopause as a subject that can be discussed openly, so women can be given suitable support and their colleagues can understand what the impact can be,” said one respondent.
Talking openly and without embarrassment is one of the most important ways an employer can provide support. It normalises the issue and can help the employee feel less isolated. This is borne out by our survey, with one respondent saying that “we need to be able to talk about it honestly, with the understanding that it doesn’t make you vulnerable to do so.” And in starting that conversation, the door opens to providing further support as needed.
In line with the Government Equalities Report on Menopause, companies should provide a policy document or set of guidelines, as well as relevant training and information. As one male interviewee in a management position put it: “As much information on this subject as possible would help me and other leaders in the business become better at providing support.”
Other best practices to consider:
Companies should also be prepared to make adjustments to their approach in order to suit the requirements of each person, as each experience is different.
Several companies across the private and public spheres have been making great strides in normalising the discussion and support of menopause in the workplace.
Aviva launched its own menopause awareness campaign in 2020 to engender discussions and break taboos, including training, seminars, and a dedicated support app for all its UK employees.
Opening lines of communication is also part of the Sainsbury’s wider D&I strategy regarding menopause. The company took a three-phase approach internally and worked with external experts, Henpicked, when establishing their support programme.
Meanwhile, HSBC UK, first direct and M&S Bank became the first Menopause Friendly Accredited employers in the UK in 2021, due to their pioneering work, including training, guidance, weekly lunch-and-learn sessions, and redesigning their uniforms to use more breathable fabric. They even offered a free confidential telephone counselling service.
As Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East and Chair of the APPG on Menopause in the House of Commons, said of the accreditation: “It’s time all employers took menopause seriously and took action.”