International Women’s Day 2020
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day made me think about a subject on my mind a lot at the moment; the menopause. Why is it on my mind? The menopause at work has become a popular topic among employers and employees after figures highlighted that the fastest growing demographic in the UK workforce are women aged 60-64 and 55-59 and that the average age of natural menopause transition is 51.
This has led to discussions about women’s participation in the UK economy and how much of the female workforce and their workplaces are now facing menopause transitional challenges. As more women are taking an active role in our economy, it closes the gap between genders and is something to celebrate, but there is much we can still be doing to make workplaces inclusive of all genders and ages, and learning about the impact of menopause, is one.
This year’s theme asks how we can forge a gender equal world and encourages us to “celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.”
International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated each year on March 8th, and although it hasn’t always been that date, the awareness day has been observed since 1911. Interestingly, the IWD has no specific country or organisation responsible for it and it’s not owned or run by one charity; it is a global collaboration organised by different groups, NGO’s, academic institutions, media hubs and corporations for the collective goal of celebrating the “social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” and “a call to action for accelerating gender parity”.
There are many different ways one can get involved in IWD and their website hosts a vast array of marketing materials, event packs and guidance to help everyone get one step closer to achieving true gender equality across the world.
Striking the #EachforEqual pose draws attention to the theme
So, what does this have to do with the menopause? Well, in the UK, the last 30 years has seen the increases mentioned at the beginning of this article, of ageing women staying in the workforce. This is down to a few reasons;
- more women are going back to work after having children,
- the economic downturn has forced women to stay working for longer,
- the state pension ages increased and
- the default retirement age has been ended.
All these changes mean that workplaces are being faced with challenges they didn’t have to deal with before and one of these is that most women will go through the menopause at some point in their lives and that for many women, the experience is so disruptive that it affects their work. Some women experience an early menopause, either due to surgery or just a natural early menopause, but most will experience it at a later stage in their lives and evidence confirms that menopause is far from a uniform experience for all women.
In this article, I refer to the whole change as menopause, or menopause transition, but right now I’m going to refer to all the different stages which I will break down in a quick biology recap. Menopause is a stage of life at which a woman hasn’t had any menstrual periods for 12 months. The time leading up to this is called perimenopause and after it comes postmenopause. Perimenopause can last up to 10 years (sometimes longer!) and includes over 30 different symptoms that can affect the mental and physical wellbeing of an employee and even worse, they can be sporadic and unpredictable.
- Dizziness or faintness, head tightness/pressure
- Loss of feeling in hands and feet
- Muscle and joint pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of bone density
- Dry eyes/dry or itchy skin
- Skin colour changes
- Thinning, dry or itchy hair/growth or loss of body hair/growth of facial hair
- Bladder infections
- Heart racing/palpitations
- Anxiety and depression
- Panic attacks
- Crying spells
- Tension or nervousness, fatigue and loss of energy.
After the peri menopause and menopause stages, the body has to learn to cope with a new way of existing and the changes in hormone levels can lead to medical problems such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, depression and vaginal health issues.
Factors including a lack of wellbeing services or gendered ageism, mean many women feel that they have no one at work to talk to about what they are going through and in some cases, women are disciplined and fired for poor performances but still do not feel like they can disclose it is menopause related. Internalising the physical and mental pain causes negative effects that “can include:
- reduced engagement with work
- reduced job satisfaction
- reduced commitment to the organisation
- higher sickness absence
- an increased desire to leave work altogether.
The evidence suggests that transition symptoms might also have negative effects on:
- time management
- emotional resilience
- ability to complete tasks effectively.”
The symptoms can make life uncomfortable for the woman and they may start to underperform or call in sick a lot. They could also disrupt the other staff, either by their absences or uncharacteristic behaviour. The UK government report Menopause Transition Effects on Women’s Economic Participation states that there are two types of costs, for employers, associated with menopause transition:
- “Extensive margin costs are associated with women leaving work or losing their jobs because of ‘bothersome’ transition symptoms.
- Intensive margin costs are associated with women staying at work and trying to cope with problematic symptoms.”
The costs are carried by the women, their families and their employers and colleagues but can be hard to measure. Lost wages, for example can be measured, but the result of feeling forced out of work and how that impacts other aspects of daily life, is much harder to attribute a cost to however.
The extra workload added to colleagues left behind and the resources used on employing a replacement, can often be avoided by making reasonable adjustments to keep the person in their job in the first place.
Some employers may think that if they do not have any menopausal women in their employ that this subject is irrelevant to them, however there are many partners of transitional women who may be dealing with a lack of sleep, anxiety about their partner’s welfare and other disruptions to their lives that warrants everyone taking an interest in the subject.
It has come to light, that there is a lack of research in the area of menopause and mid-life for women which means that there is still many conclusions and recommendations to come, as the topic gains more interest and funding. However, there are some suggestions for employers and the government on how to better support women going through the menopause:
- Creating a workplace atmosphere that encourages empathy, understanding and tolerance around the subject of menopause, so that women can get practical and emotional support from their colleagues
- Introduce equality and diversity training that is specific to the menopause, age and gender issues, especially among mangers and senior staff
- Workplace occupational health providers and counsellors could make provisions for recognising and supporting staff going through the transition
- Creating absence policies that take menopause into account
- Establishing support groups or advocates for women to go to when they need, and to support others through
- Engage flexible working and workplace adjustments to accommodate affected people such as:
- Good ventilation
- Fans on desks all year round
- Temperature control
- Well equipped and cared for toilets
- Lighter, non-synthetic work uniforms
- Quiet areas
- Drinking water
- Access to showers
- Ability to move workspaces
It is important to note that not all women experience a difficult menopause transition and that there is limited evidence for how effective these adjustments are however there have been a number of successful workplace tribunals against employers who haven’t treated the menopause transition as part of the Equality Act 2010, and success stories from organisations who have implemented changes.
A woman going through the menopause isn’t automatically going to become rubbish at their job. The point is that women should be able to speak up about their symptoms and for workplaces to make reasonable adjustments so they can continue working and performing to a high standard. Nor should it be ignored, that there are people who identify as a gender different from the female sex they were assigned as at birth, who will go through menopause too. According to a 2018 report, 51% of transgender people hide their identity at work for fear or discrimination, so a safe and inclusive environment for people to transition through menopause without prejudice is paramount; especially as this study says that bringing your whole, authentic self to work makes you a happier and more productive employee.
There is much more to learn about this stage of a woman’s life, and the impact it has on workplaces so if you’d like to learn more, you could do some research, read this report, or attend a Menopause at Work workshop for employers so you can be as knowledgeable and inclusive as possible. Making changes like this is a great step towards delivering equality in the workplace and giving women the opportunity to work through menopause and beyond, just as people who do not go through menopause are able to.
Find out more about International Women’s Day on their website and more about Menopause at Work from the Menopause Transition Effects on Women’s Economic Participation Report.