Dr Ghazala Aziz-Scott, specialist in women’s health at The Marion Gluck Clinic explores how the menopause can affect working women and how they can go about discussing this problem with their employer and create a more open and caring workplace.
There are 4.4 million women age 50 to 64 at work in the UK, representing 50% of the workforce and growing in number. 80% of women going through the menopause are working and many are suffering with symptoms affecting their quality of life. It is widely recognised that women have skills and talents that are of enormous benefit and are represented across employment sectors and professions at every level including top executive and governmental positions. How menopause is viewed both in society and in the workplace must continue to progress and align with the role of women in modern society.
The average age of the menopause in the UK is 51 and is defined as the absence of menstruation for 1 year, but the perimenopausal period leading up to this can last for several years and is a veritable hormonal rollercoaster. Unfortunately, many women are unaware that their symptoms are related to hormonal fluctuations in estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Classic symptoms of the menopause are:
- Hot flushes and night sweats causing disrupted and poor quality sleep
- Psychological disturbances such as depression and anxiety
- Loss of concentration and focus, brain fog, memory loss and decreased work performance
- Low libido and vaginal dryness
- Insomnia causing irritability and fatigue
- Muscle and joint stiffness with generalised aches and pains
- Weight gain
- Irregular or erratic cycles which can be heavy, causing flooding
Addressing the stigma of menopause in society and women themselves feeling ashamed or inadequate is a fundamental but symbiotic shift that needs to occur. There is still a lack of awareness with both employers and women about these changes. Many women stop working altogether and in fact, a recent survey by the British Medical Association found many highly experienced doctors were leaving the profession because of the menopause.
So how can this translate into the workplace We need to optimise the necessary support to improve wellbeing at work and create a culture of ‘menopause dignity’. Employers have a legal duty to ensure proper working conditions and remove discriminatory barriers to progression for women. As a consequence, they will also reap the long term benefits of loyalty, increased productivity and attendance. Let’s aim to close the gender pay gap! An inclusive, diverse and nurturing workplace leads to a thriving business.
Employers have a corporate social responsibility to formulate HR policies and a framework to support menopause in the workplace. Organisations such as CIPD and ACAS produce comprehensive guidelines and resources on how to develop menopause policy effectively – open communication and changes to the working environment can go far in reducing the impact of symptoms. Every manager and employer should have access to high quality information and education about menopause to enable appropriate support of their teams. This ensures menopause gets the same understanding as any other health issue which will boost morale, retain experienced employees and reduce sickness absence. Good communication skills such as sensitivity, empathy, active listening and non- judgement will encourage women to talk with honesty and engender self-compassion. Open communication must be facilitated with conversations about relevant issues to breakdown barriers so gauging and promoting awareness.
Performance must be managed proactively and positively with attention paid to the root cause if there appears to be a problem. The approach should be positive and supportive, taking into account underlying health conditions. Extra support and coaching can then be identified and reasonable time scales for improvement can be set. Regular informal dialogue will build trust and improve resilience.
Psychological issues are prevalent in the menopause transition, and women must be empowered to discuss concerns with their line manager so adjustments can be made to work duties causing a particular challenge. Some companies have employed a menopause or wellbeing champion for this purpose so women can be directed to relevant counselling services and seek medical advice about how to relieve their symptoms. This can include lifestyle advice about diet, exercise, supplements such as multivitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, oil of evening primrose, relaxation techniques, stress management and sleep. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy tailored to a women’s specific needs can be a game changer and is available from GPs and specialist clinics such as the Marion Gluck Clinic. It relieves immediate symptoms but also has many long term benefits on brain, cardiovascular and bone health.
Employers must identify reasonable adjustments that can create an inclusive space for women and there must be capacity for risk assessment for each individual employee. Easy access to washrooms and sanitary products should be considered. Changes such as moving a desk to the window, ensuring ergonomics of the workspace, providing fans, cool drinking water and regular rest breaks are a welcome relief for problematic symptoms and engender good will. Flexible working patterns are important such as part time working and surely the ability to work from home rather than taking a day off is a better solution to workplace productivity. There has been a huge culture shift in working from home due to the Covid pandemic and even as business gets back to normal, many companies and employees have been positively coerced into making alternative productive work arrangements- Zoom has boomed and the possibilities in our digital age are vast. There will be permanent changes in the corporate landscape, so this is an opportune moment for senior leadership to jump on board.
Inclusivity, diversity and nurture enable both men and women to rightfully thrive in the workplace, community and world.