Time for business to end this toxic silence around menopause

Author Helen Normoyle
By Helen Normoyle

Menopause might be in the headlines now more than ever, with famous women including Davina McCall, Michelle Obama and Lorraine Kelly talking publicly about their experiences of the midlife change. But for us mere mortals out of the public eye and particularly in the workplace, the menopause still remains something of a taboo.

The continuing toxic silence around menopause is having a devastating impact not just on the lives and relationships of women suffering with symptoms, but on their careers and the wider economy too.

A staggering 1million are set to quit their jobs here in the UK because of lack of support at work with their symptoms, following the 900,000 that are estimated to have already left, none of which is being helped by the pandemic-fuelled Great Resignation. Yet unbelievably, 63 per cent of companies still don’t have a menopause policy in place.

This, when around 15.5 million women in the UK right now are experiencing varying stages of menopausal transition and menopausal women are the fastest growing workplace demographic.

All women will go through the menopause, and for two thirds, the physical and psychological symptoms – and there’s around 40 of them ranging from anxiety, depression, lack of confidence and hot flushes – will negatively affect their working life.

Of course, not all women suffer with menopause symptoms – some (an estimated two in 10) will breeze through it. But in too many cases, they will suffer in silence, fearful or embarrassed about talking about menopause and the symptoms that are impacting them.
The average age for women to go through the menopause is 51, and the perimenopause (the first stage of the menopause transition) will start for most in their mid-40s to mid-50s. That’s when most women will start to experience symptoms that can impact all aspects of their lives People will often not realise that the symptoms they are experiencing are menopause-related – they might think that they’re not coping with the stress of work or juggling everything at home as well as they used to, and then that in turn can feed further into their anxiety. It’s a vicious circle.

We lose an estimated 14 million workdays every year due to menopause symptoms. And with the menopause mainly affecting those in their forties and early fifties, too many women are leaving work at the peak of their careers. Those who remain at work often resign themselves to merely existing in their roles rather than hope for any career progression as they are often overlooked for promotion, or they’re reducing their hours, stepping back from promotion or going part-time. Not because they want to, but because they feel they need to because of their symptoms.

All of this weakens gender diversity and exacerbates the gender pay gap and the pension pay gap, which isn’t really there for people in their twenties and thirties; where you really start to see it grow is when people are in their forties and fifties – and clearly the menopause is a key contributing factor to that.

A recent UCL survey estimated that women lose between £10,000 to £20,000 in wages and pension contributions because of the impact of menopause – and this really needs to change.

It’s no wonder that menopause has fast become one of the most important and topical issues facing businesses today. There’s growing recognition of the impact it’s having on talent retention and talent attraction. The UK’s population is ageing, and with that, the talent pool is shrinking so more of us need to stay at work. Plus, there’s been an increase in women taking employers to tribunals because of discrimination around the menopause under the Equality Act, and no business wants to face negative headlines around that.
As a result, menopause can no longer be ignored or overlooked. Every company, whatever the size, needs to take menopause seriously because it makes business sense on so many levels. Women in their midlife have, after all, accumulated so many skills and talents to get where they are at this point in their careers.

If women are supported through menopause, they will remain in the workplace, achieve their full potential and go further up the career path. Plus, work can be good for menopausal women, because as well as paying bills as the cost of living rockets, it can boost self-esteem and a sense of fulfilment – and employers will retain valuable members of their teams. It’s a win-win.

In the first instance, I believe all companies should have a menopause policy to ensure you signal that your business is a safe space in which to talk about the menopause, and everyone in the organisation is clear on what the company is doing to support their employees as they go through the menopause. But creating the policy is the easy bit (there are lots of great resources out there to help with this) – the leadership to implement it needs to come from the top of the organisation and it needs to be made clear that menopause is everyone’s business – leaders, line managers, employees of all ages, men and women as well as those going through menopause.

Different companies, indeed different areas of a company, will likely need to look at tailoring the workplace adjustments they offer. For some, it could be that you change company uniforms or work clothes to more breathable fabrics. For others, allowing flexible/hybrid working could be key to supporting menopausal women and, if you can, follow London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s example at City Hall and allow menopause leave. Education and training is key, especially for line managers, but really, it should be for everyone.

Informal menopause support groups backed by senior leaders are also a great idea, to let everyone know that open communication and engagement around menopause is part of your company culture.

It’s also an excellent idea to provide mental fitness training or coaching to address issues around confidence. Cognitive behavioural therapy can decrease the intensity of hot flushes and help people deal with the psychological and other cognitive symptoms of the menopause, perhaps through company health insurance.

But if that’s not something your business can afford, even just having one person at work who’s a menopause champion or a mental health first aider could be helpful, just so people know they’re not alone and someone will listen to them if they’re not comfortable talking to their line manager or HR. It makes a significant difference.

It’s really not one size fits all but we’re already seeing how smaller organisations, not just blue chips, can make progress on this front whether it’s a fully-fledged menopause policy or a guidance document. No matter how small you are as a company, there are loads of free resources out there, from open source menopause policies to information on My Menopause Centre.

Part of the challenge in the workforce is that menopause is wrapped up with ageism, so any inappropriate behaviour or derogatory remarks about menopause must also always be challenged to create an age-inclusive culture.

Best practice must be seen from leadership. It’s not good enough either to just box tick with a menopause policy – it’s about implementing it and shifting the dial day in, day out to really make a change. Keep measuring metrics on this to make sure you are.

After all, we are the generation that will kick ass in our fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond and we have many brilliant women who have gone ahead of us. We owe it to the women who are struggling at the moment to be the hands that are pulling them up. The world would then be a better place for everyone.

It’s great that we’ve got now got so many celebrities talking openly when it comes to menopause – but it’s high time that all businesses started demonstrating from the top down that they are now taking menopause seriously too.

Helen Normoyle