Last week, the UK Government made waves when it rejected a proposal to improve support for menopause in the workplace.
Menopause is a natural part of aging for women. But it is accompanied by a range of symptoms, some of which can be very severe, can impact individuals’ day to day lives, and last for multiple years. Examples include hot flashes, night sweats, reduced libido, anxiety, and insomnia.
These symptoms usually occur between the ages of 45 and 55, which happens to be the fastest growing workplace demographic. This means that nearly eight in ten women are dealing with menopause and its symptoms at work, according to a 2017 UK report.
Due to stigma and a lack of support, many employees are struggling to cope. The UK’s Women and Equalities Committee’s report found that menopausal employees face significant “stigma, a lack of support and discrimination” at work – this is pushing one in four women to leave the workforce, primarily due to the debilitating symptoms.
This is not only bad for the employees and their career development, but also impacts the wider society and the economy. Productivity losses from a lack of menopause could cost businesses more than $150 billion a year, Frost & Sullivan told Bloomberg.
As a result of these findings, the committee recommended to the UK Government that it make changes. Examples included piloting a menopause leave policy within the public sector and appointing a menopause ambassador to support businesses on introducing workplace policies to support individuals going through the menopause.
The committee declared the government’s refusal to act as a “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce”.
Of course, the committee wasn’t alone in expressing its disappointment at the UK Government’s decision. Social media has been filled with fury, frustration and calls for action, not just in the UK, but globally.
In this context, UNLEASH sat down with HR and women’s health experts.
While there is a clear moral case for better menopause workplace support, we explored the business case, as well as why employers must not take the government’s inaction as a green light to do nothing.
The case for better menopause support
Of course, there are major benefits of governments leading the way on issues like menopause.
Jenny Saft, co-founder at Apryl, a fertility benefits company, tells UNLEASH: “What’s clear from other countries’ introduction of menopause leave [examples include Japan, South Korea and Indonesia] is that the guidance and legislation [gives] clarity around how menopause leave policies should be implemented, managed and maintained”.
There should also be help on “how employers can make the necessary cultural changes to ensure the offer of menopause leave is genuine” – this has been a flaw of the implementation in Japan, notes Saft.
Evidently having clear guidance from governments is important, but it doesn’t stop employers from stepping up, leading the charge and inspiring change on a larger scale. “By normalizing the issue and showcasing its benefits, progressive employers can help destigmatize the menopause”, adds Saft.
Employers taking action is, of course, the right thing to do, but it is also the sensible thing to do.
For Menopause Plus founder Jennifer Young, “this inaction by the government is irrelevant” – businesses doing nothing would be a “grave error”.
There are huge business risks from the fact that menopausal woman, who are often at the peak of their career, are leaving the workforce,. Those that remain often struggle with their performance and career development.
This is the case in the UK and beyond; research from Biote found that 40% of American women said menopause symptoms interfered with their productivity, 26% noted that their symptoms impacted development opportunities at work, and 17% went on to quit as a result.
“We all benefit from keeping a highly experienced pool of talent in the workplace in the long-term”, notes Young.
CEO and founder of Flexa Careers, Molly Johnson-Jones, declares: “Neglecting this issue is nonsensical. Companies need to know that supporting different needs is key to attracting and nurturing diverse teams who are able to thrive.”
The issue of menopause is a “ticking time bomb for not only women’s welfare but also for organizations and the wider economy”, notes YuLife head of wellbeing Kate Whitelock.
Professor Geeta Nargund, co-founder of the Ginsburg Women’s Health Board and Medical Director at CREATE Fertility, adds: “women over 50 represent the fastest-growing segment of the workforce” so doing nothing “could cause a severe hit to the UK economy”, which is already in dire straits.
“For this reason, it is vital that businesses step up to stem the loss of such a significant proportion of our most experienced and talented workforce, so as to prevent the potential economic consequences”.
Ultimately, “the cost of recruitment to replace women who leave is more than it would be to bring in systems to support women”, continues menopause mentor Anna Allerton. “Businesses also need to be aware that this will deeply impact their gender diversity targets, equal pay and female pensions”.
Allerton notes that “investing and supporting female talent will boost loyalty, productivity and brand awareness”.
This isn’t just for women suffering with menopause, but the broader workforce – employees are showing in the ‘Great Resignation’ that they want to work for companies that care about their workers, and therefore build diverse, inclusive workplaces.
For Young, employers taking action around menopause makes a statement; it “says a lot about you as an organization, your values and how you treat your employees”.
“Workplaces must normalize being human and work towards making supportive environments the minimum standard. That way, they can attract and keep the best talent across all life stages”, concludes Whitelock.
How to do better around menopause
That’s the business case for doing something; the next challenge is knowing where to start.
Menopause leave is one option. It “would help provide a clear pathway for female employees to navigate menopause with confidence, feeling safe in the knowledge that they can take the time they need to deal with symptoms and still return to their career”, notes Livi UK’s lead general practitioner Dr Bryony Henderson.
“In my experience, it is not the symptoms that drive women out of the workforce,” adds Hodology founder Libby Vincent. “What drives women out is embarrassing conversations. Ignorance leads to intolerance.”
She adds: “A specific menopause leave would make these heart-breaking conversations a thing of the past”, as well as become a differentiator in the war for talent.
But there is more that employers can do. In addition to reviewing absence policies, particularly around short-term sickness leave, Young calls on employers to think about their flexible working policies.
“Disturbed sleep, difficulty focusing, lack of motivation are just a few of the symptoms of menopause that may mean employees need a bit of extra flexibility in their working days”. This could play out through flexibility on working hours, more flexibility on working location or more frequent breaks.
Johnson-Jones agrees. “Empowering employees to utilize whatever combination of flexible working options best meets the needs of the business and individual staff members – no matter their age or gender – will also ensure that this support is sustained in the long-term, and in a genuine way”.
Employers can also make adjustments to their working environment “to help women going through the menopause feel more comfortable at work”, according to Young – examples include desk fans, breathable work uniforms, accessible toilets or quiet areas to take a break.
Soprana Personnel International founder Diana Blažaitienė agrees on the need for more flexibility and better working environment, but also notes it’s important that companies “also offer additional financial support for health check-ups”.
Lean into education and communication
Another piece of the puzzle is awareness raising and education.
Consultant and founder at Menopause in Business Kate Usher states this must be for HR and managers, and be focused around empathy.
Livi UK’s Dr Henderson states: “Without company-wide awareness and education on menopause, women are often left having to explain their symptoms and care needs to managers who often, through no fault of their own, are not adequately equipped to provide support.
“Providing workshops, knowledge sharing and internal education systems to help employees understand symptoms and normalize conversations amongst colleagues around the topic will foster a more considerate and inclusive work culture”.
It is this culture change that is crucial, but is very hard to achieve.
Ultimately, Young notes that it is important to remember that “menopause affects everyone differently” – employers must bear this in mind, and ask their workers what their challenges are. Allerton advises that businesses set up a working group to support on policy-making.
Feedback will not only ensure that employees get the support they need, but creates “an open, kind, compassionate environment where women feel they can share their experience and ask for support”, notes Whitelock.
This, in turn, will destroy any taboos and stigma that remain around menopause in the workplace, and go a long way to driving more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces that benefit all.
Usher concludes: “This is a moment of opportunity to create [better] workplaces. It is up to you what happens next”.
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