Acknowledging menopause at work
the right thing for staff, the right thing for your company
By Julian Hobbs, CEO, Commercial Finance, Siemens Financial Services, UK
The menopause will impact somebody you work with, somebody you know, somebody you live with, or somebody you love. In the business world, it’s almost a guarantee that there will be menopausal impact in some form for your company. So, failing to address it, or to make allowances for those affected, or raise awareness among the whole workforce, is not commercially minded. In every way, it’s remarkable that business has historically done so little about helping women manage the menopause at work until recently. And it’s good that the financial services sector is changing the picture and is arguably ahead of other industry sectors in this regard.
A new survey from Acas has found that a third of employers (33%) do not feel well equipped to support women going through the menopause.i
Let’s face it, there are 14 million women working as employees in the UKii, of which statistically 3-5 million will – at any given time – be menopausal or pre-menopausaliii. So why have we largely ignored this critical segment of the workforce for so long?
The Brain Drain
When attending the Financial Services Skills Commission (FSSC) sessions on the subject, I found the bare statistics horrifying. One in four people take time off due to menopause related illnesses or mental health challenges. And one in ten people actually leave their jobs. Yet there’s a vast amount of experience, investment, skills and capabilities offered by those women. Ignoring them is not only immoral, it’s bad for business. Certainly, taboo has played a part – yet bearing in mind the amount of work that has been done in the past looking at difficult areas such as mental health, it is astonishing that we have not been bold enough to pay equal attention to menopausal symptoms that affect not just a small proportion of women, but almost every woman as a matter of course in their lives.
8 in 10 menopausal women say their workplace has no basic support in place for them - no support networks (79%), no absence policies (81%) and no information sharing with staff (79%). 10% of menopausal and perimenopausal women who have worked during their menopause have left work due to their symptoms – mapped onto the UK population this represents a shocking 333,000 women leaving jobs due to the menopauseiv.
Stories were told by female leaders at these FSSC events of people literally not being able to deliver presentations, not being able to do their work effectively, and not being able to perform normal professional practices due to the menopause and its effects. If someone was ill, we would help them get treated. Help to manage menopausal symptoms should be no different.
So, what is being done in the workplace to redress this long-term discrimination against menopausal women?
Clearly, various forms of flexible working practices are critical, to enable women to carry on their careers as easily and effectively as possible, but without undue stress. We, for instance, have had a suite of flexible working options available for all employees in the UK for some time now, and these can be adopted, adapted or extended to meet the needs of our female colleagues as they deal with the menopause
We also have the ambition to become known as a company that is certified as menopause friendly. There are number of organisations that can take you on that journey – something of which I was (to be honest) previously unaware.
I have learned that the support of colleagues, company and culture will be critical. We have done a lot of work over six or seven years now in terms of defining and implementing that inclusive culture. I would like to think that progress in this area is epitomised by the fact that when we ran our latest internal session on menopause issues a few weeks ago, we had around two thirds of our organisation either present in the room or dialled in. This is a stunning attendance for the topic – particularly the high male presence, and the feedback and conversation we derived from the session was inspiring.
Indeed, the issue is not a solely female one. Men need to recognise, understand and support the impact of the menopause on those experiencing it. The company has to provide training. Managers and team leaders have a critical role to play bringing men and women on board. And let’s not forget the very important role that more mature men (who have already supported and helped their partners through the menopause) have to play. They potentially have more insight into the issue than younger women, as yet inexperienced in the menopause, and offer vital, experienced support for champions and mentors in the business.
A study by the Fawcett Society found that the majority of women (77%) find at least one menopause symptom ‘very difficult’, while 44% of women experience three or more symptoms that are this severe. Women are most likely to say they find sleeping (84%), brain fog (73%), and anxiety or depression (69%) difficultv.
A study by the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committeevi found that flexible working was the most important adjustment to working life to help women cope with menopausal difficulties. Respondents to the study also said they wanted to be able to feel it was possible and safe to discuss menopause with their managers and colleagues. Respondents called for an ‘open space’ for women to talk about what they are going through and for a willingness of others in the workplace to listen to the lived experience of women experiencing menopause.
In conclusion, it is an undeniable fact that support and mentoring for women going through the menopause at work has been grossly inadequate to date. Quite apart from the ethics of the issue, the lack of support for this senior, experienced, expert and valuable cohort in the workforce is commercially baffling. Rectifying the situation is still work in progress; but many have made (or are making) practical moves – of which (a) offering flexible working and (b) involving and engaging every member of staff are the most important. Business leaders would benefit (as I have) from reading about the important initiative on standards around this subject introduced by the British Standards Institute as a starting point.vii